“The big black” and “the big negro” are just two of the phrases that The New York Times used to describe Jack Johnson.
“Johnson Weds White Girl” was the headline when he married Lucille Cameron in 1912. He has been called a “negro pugilist and convicted white slaver,” who left a stain “on boxing and on his race” and abused “the fame and fortune that came to him.” Yet, condescendingly, he also was described as being “far above the average negro both mentally and physically.”
For The Times, Johnson, who in 1908 became the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight title, was inseparable from his race. It permeated how the newspaper covered every detail of his life, from his boxing to his legal troubles to his demeanor and success.
The Times’s coverage illuminates the challenges for broad acceptance faced by Johnson, who inspired the 1967 play and 1970 movie “The Great White Hope,” an account of his life and career and the resolve of white society to dethrone him, both in the ring and outside it.
Johnson resurfaced in the news last month when President Trump tweeted that he would consider pardoning Johnson, who was convicted on federal charges of transporting a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes.” Johnson, who served a year in prison, had been in a steady relationship with that woman, Belle Schreiber, who was white and had worked as a prostitute.
President Trump announced the pardon on Thursday.
The campaign for it had been complicated in part by allegations that Johnson had a history of domestic violence, as historians have chronicled. It was one reason the Obama administration cited for not granting a pardon.
In preparing articles on the president’s intentions, we examined our coverage of Johnson from his era, and were struck by how The Times, like many newspapers then, seemed to wrestle with his fame and race.
As Johnson’s chaotic life unfolded, The Times often covered it extensively, but time and distance now allow for a recognition, seemingly oblivious to the writers at the time, of the racial overtones around many of the troubles he faced.
Often, official police accounts of his run-ins with the law were simply parroted without any probing or deeper analysis of what truly had happened. This sort of blind faith in the police version, typical of the day, was particularly damaging to people like Johnson. He was a well-known black athlete who, at a time when racial animosity and lynchings were widespread, was brash, taunted his opponents, dated white women and openly enjoyed the luxuries of his wealth.
Today, people still seem to struggle with black athletes who are outspoken. So while the harsh and sometimes racist tone of the coverage came as no surprise, it was jarring still.
Johnson, a native of Galveston, Tex., began his professional boxing career in 1897, but The Times did not start covering him until about a decade later as he grew to become a leading contender for a world title. The Times’s articles showed that the public could not necessarily stomach a black man achieving that accomplishment. The articles about his boxing were highly critical of him, even when he found success.
In 1907, a year before he won the title, he beat Bob Fitzsimmons, but for The Times the victory came with an asterisk.
“Although Johnson’s victory was clean-cut,” the paper wrote, “there is little credit attached to it.” That’s because, The Times wrote, Fitzsimmons had injured his right elbow in training, “making that arm practically useless.”
This was a part of a theme of The Times diminishing Johnson’s achievements.
The Times wrote with apparent glee when a sparring partner knocked down Johnson in an exhibition fight in 1909.
On July 4, 1910, the retired former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to face Johnson in a fight that many white Americans hoped would bring the title back to their race. Johnson thoroughly defeated Jeffries, sparking violent white backlash across the country. Five months after the fight, The Times published, without citing any evidence, a claim by Jeffries that he had been drugged in the lead-up to the fight.
Also in that lead-up, hints of racial animosity brewed across the country, though The Times’s coverage did not reflect any of that, except for a letter to the editor denouncing how the fight “is coming rapidly to be regarded as a racial test.”
After Johnson’s victory over Jeffries, The Times published an article about a small white man beating up a drunk black man on a New York City subway train. “Disorderly Negro Gets Subway Lesson,” read the headline, with the subheadline, “Little White Man From Texas Soon Convinces Him He’s No Jack Johnson.”
Often, articles went to great lengths to herald Johnson’s white opponents. In October 1909, Johnson knocked out Stanley Ketchel in the 12th round. But The Times painted the bout as a significant moral victory for Ketchel.
“Ketchel won many friends by his showing to-day,” the article said. “From the time he entered the ring until he was carried out, he was game to the core. Outweighted, overreached, and in every way the physical inferior to his gigantic opponent, he fought a cool, well-planned, gritty fight.”
But nothing seemed to match the zeal of Johnson’s perceived transgressions outside the ring.
Johnson was frequently cited, and even arrested, for speeding. He was sued under the claim of not fulfilling public appearances.
After he was arrested in New York in 1910 on a charge of assaulting a bar patron who offered him a beer instead of Champagne, a columnist took Johnson to task for asking for “an expensive drink.”
“Mr. Johnson must be careful about his steps,” he wrote. “Popularity is flickering. The rules of polite society must be observed.”
When Johnson was being prosecuted under the “Mann White Slave Act,” as the Times called it, the paper focused less on the case than on sometimes alarmist, racially coded takes on the boxer’s every move.
A report on Johnson’s effort, for instance, to assemble a group of black investors to purchase whites-only resorts, ran under the headline, “Negro Invasion Planned.”
Indeed, Johnson’s efforts to cut against the grain of race at the time were often dismissed or criticized.
“Jack Johnson’s Ruse” was the headline of an article on his using a white man to book rooms for him in London because hotels would not allow him to stay there.
If Johnson was unpopular, another article concluded, it was “due principally to his own personality,” though there was nothing said about the ire he faced from white people averse to a black champion. “While champions of other classes have acted in a way that brought credit to the sport, the leading heavyweight has been following an opposite course.”
Even after Johnson died, on June 10, 1968, in a car accident, journalists continued to wrestle with how best to assess his life and career.
The Times sportswriter Arthur Daley, in a column two days after his death, may have best summed up the attitude toward Johnson, comparing him with another black heavyweight great, Joe Louis, who was seen as more socially respectable.
“So riotously did Johnson live that there was a universal refusal to accept him,” Daley said.
“Except for saying that he was a magnificent fighter, one of the greatest of all time,” he asserted, “there is nothing one can say.”
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John Eligon is a Times national correspondent who covers race relations and has followed boxing for years. Brandon K. Thorpe is a news assistant who contributed archival research.