Jack Johnson was facing an angry mob. During the turbulent years when he was the first black man to hold the heavyweight boxing championship, Johnson routinely fought surrounded by menacing white crowds. But on that June night in 1936, Johnson wasn't champion, and the mob wasn't white. Hours earlier, Joe Louis had been beaten by Germany's Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in New York City, sending many black Americans into shock. As Harlem erupted in frustration and rage, Johnson roamed the neighborhood flaunting the money he had won betting against Louis. Now people wanted Jack Johnson's blood.
"That Joe has a lot to learn," Johnson had said. Louis, he claimed, was a "mechanical fighter" who didn't know how to think in the ring, a "clumsy greenhorn" with an "off-balance stance." And Johnson had continually pointed out the flaw that had proved to be Louis's undoing. "Louis holds his left too low," Johnson had warned before the Schmeling fight, "and the first fellow who makes him step back and then throws a right at his chin will knock him out."
That was exactly the tactic that Schmeling used to send Louis to the canvas three times. Although the German had detected Louis's vulnerability on his own, Johnson viewed the victory as vindication of his own boxing genius. Harlemites, already stung by Louis's defeat, were infuriated by Johnson's bragging. It didn't take long for a mob to form, with Johnson as its target. Mercifully, the police intervened and rescued Johnson.
For Jack Johnson, that night marked the bottom of a long fall. Fifteen years earlier—though broke, his championship gone, and recently released from prison, where he had been sent on a trumped-up charge for violating the Mann Act, a law prohibiting interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes—he was still a hero to the thousands who turned out to greet him upon his arrival home in Harlem. While much of America wanted to forget the racial controversies of his championship reign (from 1908, when he stopped Tommy Burns, to 1915, when he was knocked out by Jess Willard), Harlem continued to bestow on Johnson an unparalleled fame. Unparalleled, that is, until the rise of Detroit's Louis.
Johnson and Louis should have been natural allies. In his quest to become the second black to hold the heavyweight championship, Louis faced the same racism that Johnson had confronted a quarter century earlier. In their common difficulty, however, they found no common ground. Instead, they became antagonists, and their rift ultimately destroyed Johnson as a hero to his people.
The antagonism between Johnson and Louis ran especially deep; by many accounts its origin was an incident in a Philadelphia gym in 1908. At the time Johnson was neither a hero nor the heavyweight champion. Louis, for that matter, wasn't even born. Yet what happened in that gym that day would contribute to the bad blood between them.
Johnson, hungry for a workout, could find no one willing to spar with him except for a fellow named Jack' Blackburn. Blackburn, however, was a lightweight. Johnson agreed to take him on, but it was obvious he disdained the lighter fighter. As they sparred, Blackburn became increasingly irritated by Johnson's nonchalant manner, so he bloodied the bigger man's nose. Johnson was furious. He threw everything he had, but the wily lightweight dodged his rushes and survived the sparring session still standing. Later, Blackburn loved to tell of how he had once embarrassed the future heavyweight champion. Johnson never forgave Blackburn for showing him up.
Blackburn's life was soon to take an unhappy turn. Convicted of stabbing a man in a barroom fight, he was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter. As his release date approached, friends in the boxing community tried to organize a benefit to help him back on his feet. When he was asked to participate, Johnson replied, "Let the son of a bitch stay in jail."
By the time Blackburn did gain his freedom, Johnson was a fugitive in Europe, temporarily escaping the jail term he had incurred for his alleged Mann Act transgression, and the backlash against the champion had caused boxing's color line, previously a phenomenon within the heavyweight division, to be extended for a time to all divisions. Blackburn's last few years as a topflight fighter coincided with this backlash, and his hopes for a lightweight championship were crushed. It is not surprising that he carried a lasting bitterness toward Johnson.
That bitterness was evident nearly 20 years later when two numbers men from Detroit, John Roxborough and Julian Black, asked Blackburn to train Golden Gloves champion Joe Louis for his first professional fight. Blackburn was skeptical about handling a black heavyweight and had this advice for his new student: "You know, boy," he told Louis, according to Louis's 1978 autobiography, Joe Louis: My Life, "the heavyweight division for a Negro is hardly likely.... If you really ain't gonna be another Jack Johnson, you got some hope. White man hasn't forgotten that fool nigger with his white women, acting like he owned the world."
Roxborough preached a similar sermon to Louis. If he were to have any chance of reaching the top, Louis must not repeat Johnson's mistakes. Most of all, this meant never being seen in public with a white woman. "And for God's sake," added Roxborough, "after you defeat a white opponent, don't smile."
"That's what Jack Johnson did," said Black.
Louis wasn't smiling when he climbed through the ropes at Chicago's Bacon Casino on July 4, 1934, for his professional debut. But seated at ringside at the invitation of the promoters, Johnson was flashing his golden smile. His dapper appearance belied the lean times he had endured as an ex-champion. His fame had not been translated into fortune. Throughout the '20s he had challenged "that draft dodger Dempsey," but his challenges were ignored. He tried to get other fights, but boxing commissions refused to give him a license. Without a license he couldn't even spar in vaudeville revues, then the customary way ex-fighters cashed in on their names. It wasn't until the early '30s that Johnson was allowed to take part in boxing exhibitions. By the early '30s, however, vaudeville was virtually dead.
He hung around gymnasiums and boxing arenas in New York and Chicago, sparring with young fighters for pocket change and searching for a good prospect in need of a trainer. That's why he accepted the invitation to the Bacon Casino. He had heard good things about Louis, but when Louis came down the aisle with Blackburn at his side, Johnson's smile froze, and his eyes welled with hatred. Blackburn glared back at Johnson.
Louis made his first night's work a quick one as he scored a first-round TKO over his mediocre opponent. The fans wanted more, so after the new pro had returned to his dressing room, Johnson was summoned into the ring for a celebrity introduction. "As we listened in amazement," wrote New York Amsterdam News columnist Dan Burley, "we heard the former champion tell all present that Louis might be O.K. some day, but that he was being trained wrong, etc., etc. He dissected the fledgling pro heavyweight from his feet to his head, all to show that Jack Blackburn, the skinny scar-faced trainer, was using the wrong methods in bringing out the best in his charge. Boos and catcalls greeted the outburst."
Johnson, a veteran at handling hostile audiences, was unfazed by the reaction of the crowd. He was certain that time would prove him right.
With no further prospects in Chicago, Johnson headed back to New York, where he had begun scratching out a living in a freak show called Hubert's Museum. There, in a dingy Times Square cellar with a sword-swallower, a snake charmer and a fat lady, the former heavyweight champion of the world took second billing to a group of trained fleas. His act consisted of telling his life story and demonstrating boxing basics. "It was the only way of getting myself a stage and people to listen to me," he later said. Most audiences found him friendly and engaging, but one writer described him as "leering and egotistical" and wondered "if for a dollar, a drink or just a whim, he wouldn't contradict himself tomorrow."
Johnson was often asked about contemporary fighters. He didn't think much of them. Increasingly, Louis became the subject of his criticism. Johnson nevertheless recognized that Louis possessed considerable talent. This was evident in the way he kept turning up at Louis's training camps—in Pompton Lakes, N.J., Detroit and even Chicago.
During their first meeting in Detroit, Louis was in awe of Johnson. The former champ certainly cut a fine figure with his blue beret, boar's skin gloves and silver-headed walking stick. He also affected Continental mannerisms and had transformed his Texas drawl into an English accent. All this impressed the gruff, inarticulate Louis, but the fast-talking Johnson also left him feeling slightly uncomfortable. When asked about Johnson after their meeting, Louis defended the former champion. "Every man's got a right to his own mistakes," he said. "Ain't no man that ain't made any."
At the same time, Louis's managers were uncomfortable about Johnson's presence. But they knew that he was the folk hero of many blacks, so they kept their feelings in check and tolerated Johnson's sporadic visits—until Louis signed to fight ex-heavyweight champion Primo Camera in June 1935. National attention was now focused on the youngster from Detroit, and any association with the flamboyant Johnson might damage Louis's carefully constructed image. Louis's managers, determined to avoid this, released to the press seven commandments, the code of conduct that Louis supposedly lived by. (They were: He was never to have his picture taken with a white woman; he was never to go into a nightclub alone; there would be no soft fights; there would be no fixed fights; he was never to gloat over a fallen opponent; he was to keep a "dead pan" in front of the cameras; he was to live and fight clean). Each rule was clearly aimed at counteracting some aspect of Johnson's perceived behavior.
While the Louis camp was reassuring white America, it was also subtly attempting to subvert Johnson's image in the black community. Even Louis's mother, Lily, contributed, telling reporters, "If Joe becomes champion, he's going to make Jack Johnson ashamed of himself all over again."
Johnson, meanwhile, had toned down his criticism of Louis. He began to frequent the Renaissance Restaurant on Seventh Avenue, which was Louis's Harlem headquarters. Amsterdam News writer Earl Brown observed that Johnson "imbibed with joy the looks of respect and wonder" patrons lavished on him. Most boxing people didn't give Louis much of a chance against Camera, a 6'6", 277-pound Italian. Johnson, however, broke from the pack and told Brown, "He [Louis] has the stuff; he oughta win. I reckon he'll win."
Johnson was correct. Louis upset Carnera, stopping him in the sixth round. After the fight, Johnson worked his way into the victor's dressing room and, shaking the Bomber's hand, told him, "Boy, you're the greatest fighter in the last 25 years." Johnson had recognized the inevitable: Louis surely would become the second black heavyweight champion.
If outwardly Johnson was gracious, inwardly he felt deeply threatened. Above all, he coveted the distinction of having been the only black heavyweight champion. Though the title hadn't brought him great wealth, it had brought him celebrity and a life that others of his background could hardly dream of. That he had possessed the title was his very identity, and he desperately feared losing it.
Ever the strategist, Johnson tried to turn the threat to his own purposes. Shortly after the Carnera fight, he approached Roxborough and told him he was willing to replace Blackburn as Louis's trainer. "I can make a champion out of that boy," he told Roxborough, "if you turn him over to me."
If there had been any question that the Louis organization's subversion of Johnson's image was merely a by-product of the selling of Louis to white America, it was answered in Roxborough's contemptuous reply. In his autobiography, Louis recalled how Roxborough "cursed Johnson out, told him how he had held up the progress of the Negro people for years with his attitude, how he was a low-down, no-good nigger, and told him he wasn't welcome in my camp anymore."
Johnson reverted to blasting the Bomber verbally, and Louis read one of Johnson's attacks in a newspaper. "I couldn't believe this," Louis wrote in his autobiography. "I respected this man; he had come to my training camp and all. It really disappointed me...." He showed the newspaper to Blackburn, who, for the first time, told Louis about his sparring session with Johnson.
When Johnson, once again trying to attach himself to Louis, showed up at the Pompton Lakes training camp, he was barred. "Get that black cat out of here," demanded Louis. "I don't want him in my camp."
Johnson, however, was obstinate and kept trying to work his way back into the picture. LIFE magazine wanted to do a photo session with the two great black heavyweights, and Johnson and a LIFE photographer rode out to Pompton Lakes, but when they reached the door they were stopped by Julian Black. Loud discussions followed, but Black was adamant. There would be no pictures of Johnson and Louis together. Johnson and the photographer finally left the training camp.
Perhaps it was just such slights that egged Johnson on, but in the early months of 1936 he went too far. While the Louis camp was angling for a crack at the heavyweight title, The Ring magazine reported that Johnson had signed to train the champion, Jim Braddock. Criticizing Louis was one thing, but aiding one of his opponents was another. Johnson's standing in the black community, which had been eroding, was now disintegrating. That process would culminate with Louis's dramatic loss to Schmeling and Johnson's narrow escape from the wrath of some of his furious Harlem neighbors.
Although he ran away from that mob physically intact, Johnson's heroic image was now shattered. Seemingly bent on self-destruction, however, he persisted in assailing Louis. While other men might have learned their lesson and kept quiet, other men had not been molded in the manner that Johnson had been.
Johnson had propelled himself from anonymity to the heavyweight championship not just by being the greatest boxer of his era, but by refusing to be silent about the fact that he was. He drove white America into wanting to see him beaten, broken, silenced. If this tactic had helped to lift him to the top of the heap, it also contributed to his downfall. Now, with the emergence of Louis, Johnson saw himself being consigned to anonymity by his own people. Rather than quietly acquiesce, he once again chose to antagonize. Rather than be a ghost, he chose to be a villain.
And a villain he was. Around Harlem, Johnson constantly heard jeers. He wasn't completely immune to them. "Whatever I say," he told an interviewer, "it seems to get me in trouble." Then he delivered his usual analysis of Louis's flaws. "Everybody thinks I'm jealous of Joe Louis," he said to Nat Fleischer, editor of The Ring, "but it ain't so. Louis, to me, is the hardest hitter that ever fought, but I still think his stance is all wrong."
Louis steadfastly ignored Johnson's barbs and continued to avoid any contact with him. For Louis, Johnson simply ceased to exist. In discussing the great black fighters of the previous era, Louis said that he hoped someday he would be as good as Sam Langford. He never mentioned Johnson, and he was well aware that Langford had been a thorn in Johnson's side.
Johnson continued to root against Louis, and remained unpopular, until his death in 1946. He was killed when his automobile crashed into a light pole on a North Carolina highway. As usual, he was speeding. This time he was rushing back to New York. Johnson was on his way to watch Louis fight Billy Conn.
His passing evoked regret in the black community that the animosity between the two champions had never been resolved. "A friendly relationship between Louis and the former champion," wrote Dan Burley, "might have cemented the fact in the mind of the world that racially we are one."
Louis's reaction to Johnson's death was cool. "He must have been a great fighter," Louis told reporters. "My trainer Jack Blackburn knew him well and said he was great." Louis's personal feelings wouldn't be expressed until he wrote his autobiography. His recollections of the first black heavyweight champion were tinged with resentment. "Jack Johnson ruined boxing for blacks," he wrote, "especially black heavyweights."
As the years passed and Louis became fixed as a national hero, Johnson became a forgotten figure. It wasn't until the late '60s, when his championship years were fictionalized in Howard Sackler's play The Great White Hope, that Johnson was resurrected, as a hero not only of black culture, but also of American culture as a whole. Yet this favorable view of Johnson is a selective one. Johnson's treatment of Louis does not fit comfortably into it. Sackler's image lacks the complexities that truly reveal Johnson as a man who prized the spotlight more than he valued respect: a man whose great strength, the stubborn courage to stand alone, also led to his tragedy.
This is New York-based writer Robert Horn's first article for this magazine.