EPISODE 27 Jack Johnson (Part 2): The Fight

“And it was fast cars and whiskey
Long legged girls and fun
I had everything that money could bring
And I took it all with a gun”

— from the song I’ve Never Picked Cotton

“Johnson did not care. He had no use for the bourgeois values of thrift and respectability.” —Randy Roberts

“You don’t catch Jim Jeffries losing to a colored man.” — Jim Jeffries

“Quite conceivably there had never been a more important athletic event in American history.” — Randy Roberts 

“Even those who have an absurdly exaggerated horror of prize fighting as a ‘brutal’ sport should gently warm in their sensitive minds a little hope that the white man may not lose, while the rest of us will wait in open anxiety the news that he has licked the—well, since it must be in print, let us say the negro, even though it is not the first word that comes to the tongue’s tip.” — New York Times

By 1900, the federal government had long abandoned Reconstruction, and white supremacy was returning to the South with a vengeance. Jim Crow was in full swing. Segregation was the law of the land. And Fifty years before Jackie Robinson challenged segregation in baseball, there was Jack Johnson. 

Lynching was a weekly event. Any black man in the South not acting subservient could find himself dangling from a tree. Even African American leaders like Booker T. Washington preached that accepting segregation, keeping one’s head down, and working hard were the best options for black people.

Jack Johnson clearly didn’t get the memo.

At this time when simply looking a white man in the eyes, or talking to a white woman, could get one lynched, Jack Johnson made a living beating the hell out of white men in the ring. Living defiantly as if prejudice didn’t exist—he felt—was the best way to defeat racism. 

It would be easy to mistake Jack Johnson’s story simply as a tale of standing up to racism. It’s about that—sure. But it’s also about a lot more. Because as much Jack Johnson stared down white supremacy, he also battled those black people who insisted that he behaved like a hard-working, God-fearing role model. But JJ wasn’t about to trade a cage for another. He wouldn’t be anyone’s puppet. He would have no master telling him how to live—not white ones, but no black ones either. His story is the tale of a man who, in spite of a time and place that would not allow it, was on a defiant quest to be free, and live life on his own terms. 

In this episode:

  • Public Enemy Number One

  • At home in the integrated criminal underworld

  • Ladies and fast cars

  • Jack Johnson’s intellectual side

  • The Great White Hope

  • Knocking out and befriending Stanley “The Assassin” Ketchel

  • “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro.” Jim Jeffries

  • Why the Governor of California prohibited the fight

  • Death threats and attempted poisonings

  • Jack Johnson’s eerie calm under pressure
    A spectator: “He’ll kill you, Jack.”
    Jack Johnson: “That’s what they all say.”

  • The verbal fight with Jim Corbett

  • Triumph and riots in over 50 cities

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