The Great Black Mark

A notorious fight a century ago set an ugly template for race relations, in sports and in society
July 04, 2010

One hundred years ago, on July 4, Jack Johnson battered Jim Jeffries across a Reno ring for 15 rounds. It was one of the most one-sided heavyweight fights of all time. The only person among the 16,000 sun-baked souls who was even possibly entertained was Johnson himself. He spent the better part of the fight mocking his opponent. "Stop loving me, Jeff," he said, each time Jeffries collapsed into a clinch. Or, "I can go on like this all afternoon, Mr. Jeff." And so on.

It was, in other words, not an especially competitive event. Even when Jeffries's celebrity supporters—Gentleman Jim Corbett, among others—urged him on, it was to the challenger's immediate disadvantage. "Shut up," Jeffries finally barked at Corbett after the ninth round. "All that stuff out of your mouth just makes him hit harder."

There is no sin in one-sided fights, and that is hardly why we recall this one. Rather the shame, memorable yet, is in the ugly premise of the bout—a fight to confirm racial superiority, in which Jeffries played the role of the Great White Hope—and the tragic consequences of its outcome. It set off a coast-to-coast spasm of racial unrest that not only confirmed the cruel bigotry of an adolescent nation but also did as much to stunt integration as any event of the time. It was an anti--Joe Louis moment, a reverse Jackie Robinson, causing damage that would require nearly half a century of social repair.

Which is to say, this is not a centennial we can very well celebrate, though it doesn't hurt to be made uncomfortable every 100 years or so.

Back then, less than a half century after emancipation, a black man was still not permitted to fight for titles, else, warned a New York Times editorial, "ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors." Jeffries, a huge heavyweight for the time (he weighed 220 pounds at normal fighting weight), had enforced the practice during his reign, rebuffing all challengers of color. But after he retired, it soon became impossible to keep the swelling group of black contenders at bay.

In terms of white acceptance Johnson was probably the worst possible choice. He rubbed his relative freedom in everybody's face, filling his Stutz Bearcat with white prostitutes (an activity for which he would one day be imprisoned), flashing a gold-toothed grin and generally having just too good a time for anybody's comfort. But once he'd won the title on the day after Christmas in 1908, having chased Tommy Burns all the way to Australia to do so, he became a source of national consternation. A black champion? The author Jack London, who was in Sydney at the time, immediately began campaigning for an amendment to this racial injustice: "Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the smile from Jack Johnson's face. Jeff, it's up to you!"

Jeffries took the call. It was a national imperative, the way he understood it: "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of winning the title for whites." Jeffries was not an ideal challenger, but the supposed advantages of his race were presumed sufficient to his task. "The difference," wrote adventure novelist Rex Beach, "is in both breeding and education."

"Every man with red blood in his veins," an Omaha pastor told his flock, "should see Jim Jeffries regain the heavyweight championship from Jack Johnson." He spoke for much of a country.

But this imagined demonstration of racial supremacy—and what better symbols for a divided nation than these two stripped-down gladiators—did not go as white America had expected nor, for that matter, as black America had hoped. Incidents of black pride upon Johnson's victory, a comment here or a refusal to shuffle there, were reported from Montana to Manhattan. And so were the reprisals of white mobs: the shootings, the beatings, the knifings. Dozens of blacks were killed, hundreds more injured, thousands of cases of disorderly conduct reported. It was a fireworks celebration of a perverse kind that Fourth of July night, a racial riot that would not be matched in scope until the assassination of Martin Luther King 58 years later.

For anybody who dreamed of equality, or simply a simmering respect between white and black America, the Johnson-Jeffries fight represented a lasting setback. That night exposed the divide for a chasm, beyond any easy bridging.

While the centennial remains beyond celebration, it is certainly worth remembering. We've learned much in the meantime, including that sport is best restricted to the service of entertainment, for uplift and excitement. In any case, we no longer tolerate the marketing of Great White Hopes in our games.

Now on SI.com

Richard Hoffer writes about the Home Run Derby at SI.com/mlb

"I am going into this fight," said Jeffries, "for the sole purpose of WINNING THE TITLE FOR WHITES."

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)