100 Years Later: Race and "The Fight of the Century"
by Roopika Risam — Emory University
July 05, 2010 – 00:02
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