100 Years Later: Race and "The Fight of the Century"

Curator's Note

One hundred years ago, on July 4, 1910, boxers Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries undertook "The Fight of the Century." While other matches have been billed as fights of the century, the Johnson-Jeffries fight foreshadowed the real fight of the 20th century that continues today: the struggle for equality, rights, and full citizenship for African Americans.

Much more than a boxing match, the Johnson-Jeffries fight symbolized the struggle for power and manhood between "white man’s hope" and the "black peril," in the words of the Chicago Tribune. Johnson’s triumph would boost the flagging spirits of African Americans at a time when the failed promises of Reconstruction loomed large. The New York Times worried, "If the black man wins … his brothers will misrepresent his win to much more than physical equality with his white neighbors." This fight would have global significance too, wrote Reverend Reverdy Ransom: "The darker races of mankind and the black race in particular will keep the white race busy for the next hundred years in defending the interests of white supremacy."

This clip, from Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, recounts a July 5, 1910 article on Johnson's win from the Los Angeles Times: "A word to the black man.... No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno." Despite media efforts to downplay the significance of Johnson’s win, violence erupted around the country as angry whites confronted black victory celebrations.

Johnson’s win launched a blow at white supremacy, inciting white fear for the changing racial landscape in the United States. It set in motion other racially charged events in sports history that unfolded alongside black freedom struggles, such as Jackie Robinson crossing Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, Don Haskins’ decision to start five African American basketball players for Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA tournament, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ fist-raised protest at the 1968 Olympics.

The Johnson-Jeffries fight began troubling the notion that sports are apolitical. This myth remains popular today, but the fight of the century for black emancipation has played out across many facets of American social life, including sports. For, as Tommie Smith told the Daily Telegraph in 1993, an African American athlete can represent the United States in the global sports arena but "come home and be just another nigger."

Author's blog: http://insearchofglobalsolidarity.blogspot.com


As you note in the post, the Johnson-Jeffries fight is an asbolutely pivotal moment in the history of sport that demonstrates, perhaps more so than any event since, the intimate relationship between sport and cultural politics.

Your post made me think in particular about how Jack Johnson's image has been deployed--and commodified--throughout the 20th and 21st century and the ends its uses serve.  For instance, it is common knowledge that Muhammad Ali often cited Johnson's influence on him.  Also there is the popular 1970 film The Great White Hope and Miles Davis' fantastic A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970).  But I wonder more specifically about how he crops up more casually in the world of sport and sports media.  For instance, NHL goaltender Ray Emery--one of the few non-white players in the league--would wear a helmet with Johnson's image painted on it.  I wonder how other athletes, or figures related to the sports world, have put Johnson to use.  I wonder what these references/uses suggest about the persistence of Johnson's image 100 years after his most famous bout.

Along slightly different lines, I wonder about the use of the oft-repeated phrase "the fight of the century" in the history of boxing.  Has the use of this phrase shifted over time?  Are there implicit rhetorical rules within the world of boxing and sports media for when this phrase can be deployed?  Has professional boxing's diminished popularity affected how promoters now use the phrase?  Has it been taken up in certain ways by the world of mixed martial arts?


Your excellent post caused me to reflect on how much has changed with regards to the celebrity and politics of African-American athletes. Johnson, a self-identified "New Negro," publicily rebuked the assimilationist stance of Booker T. Washington—and this is only a little more than a decade after the "separate but equal" decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson. Such bravery and bold use of the pulpit of sports celebrity also brings to mind Ali's refusal to be inducted into the army in 1967, Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Black Power salute at the medal podium in Mexico City in 1968, and the candor of stars like Dock Ellis and Wilt Chamberlain.

Cut to Michael Jordan—whom Henry Louis Gates, Jr. dubbed "the greatest coroporate pitchman of our time"— expressing his apolitical views thusly: "Republicans buy sneakers, too." We subsequently find ourselves in a situation where protecting one's endorsement deals and public image trumps any sort of political consciousness.

And when African-American athletes (even non-superstars), speak up, they are asked to temper their tone. When Oklahoma City Thunder center Etan Thomas spoke at an anti-war protest in 2005 (he was then playing for the Washington Wizards), he received a letter from NBA Commissioner David Stern telling him to tread lightly. Stern says the letter was never sent, Thomas says it was.

So do today's African-American athletes—or any pro athletes, for that matter—have a responsibilty to use their celebrity as a political platform? Or has the game changed completely?



 "The Johnson-Jeffries fight began troubling the notion that sports are apolitical."

"So do today’s African-American athletes—or any pro athletes, for that matter—have a responsibilty to use their celebrity as a political platform? Or has the game changed completely?"

I'm particularly interested in these questions and both how we as scholars/academics can intervene in pointing out the politics of sport but also how certain athletic contexts (and which athletic contexts) have facilitated these discussions. Some of the things I'm thinking of are the soccer blogosphere which is far more politically conscious and culturally critical than say the baseball blogosphere and also a writer like Dave Zirin whose virtual raison d'etre is highlighting political activity in sports. The question is also raised then not only of how outsiders demonstrate the politics of sport but how fans (and broadcasters and journalists) defend the position that sports are apolitical. 

And then of course there is the matter of Ken Burns himself. I don't know this documentary but he has a very specific way of adressing culture/sport and politics in such a way that they remain historic and disconnected from the present. 

Your post reminds me of the role of boxing in the life of Malcolm X or at least the life he recounts in his Autobiography. If I remember correctly, there are three instances where Malcolm discusses boxing and all three seem serve as vehicles for relaying black empowerment.

In the first instance, Malcolm details his boyhood participation in a boxing league and his loss to a white boy. This event brought Malcolm derision from his black peers because boxing was one of the few venues where blacks "were allowed" to defeat whites.

If I recall correctly, the second instance pertains to a great historic bout where a black boxer defeats a white boxer. I can't remember which fight, but a young-adult Malcolm and his co-workers relish in the symbolism of the victory. 

The third instance is the most well known: the relationship between Malcolm X and Cassius Clay.

Retrospection through the lens of Malcolm X appears to corroborate your thesis. Boxing (and sports, in general) has indeed served as a framework for mythologizing these American racial and socio-political issues in a potent way.

With this in mind, it is really no wonder why most Rocky films have been wildly popular (Rocky I, II, III, IV and VI). They feature bouts between a European-American vs. either an African American (Apollo Creed <Carl Weathers>, Clubber Lang <Mr. T>, or Mason "The Line" Dixon < Antonio Tarver>) or the Soviet Union personified (Ivan Drago, <Dolph Lundgren>). Rocky V, as the only film of the series to be considered a flop, revolves around the rift between Stallone's character and his white working class prodigal -a tale much less charged historically and socially speaking.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.