EPISODE 28 Jack Johnson (Part 3): Nobody’s Slave

“He refused to allow anyone—white or black—or any laws and customs—to dictate his place in society or the manner in which he should live.” — Al-Tony Gilmore

“This negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.” — Asst Atty. Gen. Harry Parkin

“No brutality, no infamy, no degradation in all the years of Southern slavery, possessed such a villainous character and such atrocious qualities as the provision of the laws of Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, and other states which allow the marriage of the negro, Jack Johnson, to a woman of Caucasian strain.” He continued “Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant to the very principles of a pure Saxon government. It is subversive to social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery of white women to black beasts will bring this nation to a conflict as fatal and as bloody as ever reddened the soil of Virginia or crimsoned the mountain paths of Pennsylvania… Let us uproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultrademoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy.” — Congressman from Georgia Seaborn Roddenberry

“It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness.” — W.E.B. Du Bois

“I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn't anybody or anything he feared.” — Irene Pineau 

“I would rather listen to you than hear an oration from a professional politician. I can learn more from you.” — Mexican President Venustiano Carranza 

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:

  • The campaign to ban boxing

  • Grappling with the demons of success

  • Jack Johnson vs. Winston Churchill

  • Marriage and suicide

  • Legal persecution and marriage # 2

  • The Police Gazette calling him “the vilest, most despicable creature that lives… he has disgusted the American public by flaunting in their faces an alliance as bold as it was offensive.”

  • The paranoid hysteria at the roots of the Mann Act

  • Running from the Law

  • The title defense against Frank Moran

  • At a party with Rasputin

  • Rubbing elbows with Pancho Villa

  • Jess Willard

  • Prison life

  • Marriage # 3

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