To get an idea of what it meant when Jack Johnson beat Tommy Burns on December 26, 1908, to become the first black heavyweight champion, consider what the racial climate in the United States was like back then. For most Americans, it was a time of optimism. The era between 1880 and 1930 probably saw more new technologies and more changes to everyday life than any other in American history. Progress was the byword: electricity, railroads, the first subway systems, automobiles, the telegraph’s replacement by the telephone, and the birth of radio, among many other landmarks. As an editorial from the Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper enthused: “We Americans have some things to regret, but how infinitely more we have to praise and rejoice in! We go forward by looking up, not down. Let us look up and go forward. Let the Eagle scream!”
While the editorial didn’t say so, one of the key “things to regret” was American race relations, which were at a low ebb. Johnson was part of the first generation of blacks born free, but he came of age in a time of racial retrenchment, when the White South had asserted itself anew after the end of Reconstruction. The infamous Compromise of 1877, which had settled a disputed presidential election, was forged by Republican agreement to remove federal troops and essentially abdicate responsibility for black well-being in the South. Old Confederates took control of statehouses and local governments, imposing literacy tests and poll taxes to disenfranchise blacks at the voting booth. Blacks were abandoned by the federal government to a burgeoning culture of lynching, violent intimidation, and segregation.
By the turn of the century, though, voices were stirring in black America. The nation’s most prominent black citizen was Booker T. Washington, a former slave who had risen to become an educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Washington’s gospel of black self-help urged blacks to pursue economic advancement while accepting second-class social and political status. His autobiography, Up from Slavery, was so popular among progressive-minded whites that President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House in 1901. The president thought Washington might influence Deep South politicians through his good example and his conciliatory approach to white power.
No such luck. Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman described the White House as “so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable.” The Richmond Times said that the meeting meant that “the President is willing that Negroes shall mingle freely with whites in the social circle,” and “that white women may receive attentions from Negro men.” South Carolina’s staunch segregationist senator, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, suggested that Roosevelt’s “action in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”
Black voices began challenging Washington’s strategy of accommodation, most prominently W.E.B. DuBois. “So far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of caste distinctions, and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds . . . we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them,” he wrote. A few years later, in his charter for the short-lived Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP, DuBois declared: “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a free American, political, civil and social; and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America.”
It was a grim time for blacks. Lynching had become a national scourge, though many whites didn’t see it that way. In fact, among the most popular postage items were “lynching postcards,” which contained photos of real lynchings from around the country, often accompanied by friendly notes on the back. Only in 1908 did the post office ban these items from U.S. mail. That same year, the first major race riot outside the South broke out in Springfield, Illinois—Abraham Lincoln’s hometown—and helped launch the NAACP.
The year 1908 was a momentous one, then, on the racial front, and it would become more so before it was over—for Jack Johnson would secure a fight for the heavyweight title against champion Tommy Burns, becoming the first black man to get the chance. Johnson was breaking a color line first drawn by John L. Sullivan and upheld by the Boston Strong Boy’s successors. Giving blacks a chance at the heavyweight crown, it was widely believed, might send disturbing messages about equality, stir up racial passions, and cause social turmoil, the thinking went.
That was the spoken fear. The unspoken one concerned what might happen if such a match should ever take place: the black man might win. This despite the official line that whites were superior in athletics, as in every other area. In addition to their mental deficits, it was believed, blacks lacked courage; they had a “yellow streak.” Yet whites also feared that blacks might hold unfair advantages—their primitive, thicker skulls, some maintained, could shield them from white fighters’ punches. Whatever the contradictions of white supremacist logic, the resolution had been plain: a black man must not get near the heavyweight title.
Tommy Burns had no philosophical objection to the color line, though he was growing weary with Johnson’s persistent challenges. Ever since Burns had won the title in 1906, Johnson had stalked him around the world, badgering him for a fight. Wherever the white champion went, the black challenger would usually follow, taunting him for avoiding a match. Burns was an active and determined champion—he set a record for consecutive knockouts in title defenses—but Johnson was a different caliber of foe, in every sense.
Finally, Burns named his price: the unheard-of sum of $30,000, which he felt sure no promoter would ever pay. When an Australian, former pie salesman turned sports entrepreneur Hugh D. McIntosh—he was called Huge Deal McIntosh—came up with the money, Burns was cornered, and the match was made. Johnson would receive $5,000 plus “return transportation.” John L. Sullivan, speaking for many, decried the interracial contest and condemned Burns for taking it. “Shame on the money-mad champion! Shame on the man who upsets good American precedents because there are Dollars, Dollars, Dollars in it.” Perhaps Sullivan was so upset not only by the precedent being broken, but by what he sensed would be the likely outcome. After all, two other former heavyweight champions—James J. Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons—along with other ring greats including Tom Sharkey, Sam Langford, Joe Gans, and Battling Nelson, all told newspapers that Johnson would win.
The bout was held in Sydney on Boxing Day, December 26, 1908, when about 20,000 people came out to Rushcutter’s Bay, many arriving on Christmas night and sleeping outside the arena, awaiting the opening bell.
It would prove to be one of the most one-sided heavyweight title bouts ever held. Johnson toyed with, and tortured, Burns from the outset, dropping the champion in the fight’s opening seconds with an uppercut. In the second round, he sent Tommy down with a right. Burns was defiant, though, and if he could not compete with Johnson physically, he could tar him with verbal abuse—the two had already been insulting one another for weeks. By the fourth round, both men were jabbering furiously. Johnson later said that he would have been justified in killing Burns for some of the things the champion said. Burns, for his part, allowed that Johnson “would have been lynched very quickly” if the crowd had heard what the black man said about his wife in the seventh round. Whatever it was, it made Burns fly into a rage. Johnson ridiculed Burns’s efforts at every turn. “C’mon Tommy! Swing your right!” he called out, or pointed to his midsection and dared Burns to hit him there—in part to defuse a myth that black fighters “couldn’t take it” to the body.
“Poor little Tommy,” Johnson jeered. “Who told you you were a fighter?”
By the 13th round, Burns was ready to go, but the bell saved him. His jaw had swelled to nearly twice its normal size, his mouth bled profusely, and his eyes were closing. The constabulary conferred on stopping the fight, but after McIntosh—serving as referee—checked with Burns’s corner, the fight was allowed to continue. In the 14th, Johnson beat Burns mercilessly until the champion collapsed to the canvas. The police entered the ring, and McIntosh raised Johnson’s hand as the new champion. Later, after the fight movies were shown in the United States, several minutes were cut out of the ending, so that the film concludes just as Burns is about to fall for the final time—thus sparing future audiences the sight of Jack Johnson’s triumphant moment. Only those who attended the early screenings ever saw it.
It’s worth noting that not everyone, even in 1908, was quite so blinkered. The New York Times reported the fight even-handedly, even declaring that Johnson already stood as a potential immortal of the ring: “Not since the days of James J. Corbett has the prize ring seen so perfect a looking boxer as Johnson. Long and lithe and graceful, he is as true as an arrow in placing his blows. Especially deft is he with his left hand, and few boxers, unless they have great skill, are able to keep the big fighter from beating their faces to tatters.”
Other newspapers in the U.S. were more alarmist. “Is the Caucasian played out?” asked the Detroit News. As if in answer, the Manassas Club in Chicago, an organization of wealthy blacks with white wives, celebrated Johnson’s victory with a large banquet at which the club hired white waiters to serve the food. Elsewhere in the U.S., there were reports of black “insolence” in the aftermath of the fight.
Sitting at ringside in Sydney, where he was covering the fight for the New York Herald, Jack London couldn’t contain his dread at the result. In a feat of overwriting, he called the bout “a hopeless slaughter,” suggesting that the match had pitted a “colossus and a toy automaton,” “a playful Ethiopian and a small and futile white man.” London concluded with a fateful call to arms: “But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”
London’s words initiated a momentum that would slowly but inexorably build over the next year and a half, leading to an event that would change the lives of two men and the social history of the United States. But that, as they say, is another story.