Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali: each, during his reign as heavyweight boxing champion of the world, was the most famous black man of his time. Not only were all three known for their fighting skills, but Johnson (1878-1946), Louis (1914-1981), and Ali (born 1942, and a victim of Parkinson's disease since 1982) were renowned, in some cases notorious, for what they did and said outside the ring as well. Their general deportment figured in their reputations even more than the signal contributions they made to the concussive art.
The public regarded all three men as representatives of their race. Black people suffered and triumphed along with them, as if sharing their fate; whites' reaction to them went a long way toward determining white attitudes toward blacks in general. Thus does sporting history run on the same track as social history. And in the case of sport, more perhaps than in any other field, writers also make history, as truly as do the men they write about.
The most famous description of boxing by a black writer comes in the first chapter of Ralph Ellison's great novel, Invisible Man (1952). The black narrator has delivered a high-school commencement address, in the manner of Booker T. Washington, showing Negro humility to be the essence of progress. The white men who run his Southern town are so impressed that they invite him to recite the speech at a black-tie smoker.
But first he is to take part in more robust entertainment. With nine other young blacks, he is instructed to put on boxing gloves and shorts and is led into the ballroom of a swank hotel. A knockout blonde appears in their midst, rapturously nude. The beads of sweat around the beautiful woman's nipples mesmerize the narrator; he wants to love her and ravish her and murder her and hide from her at the same time. As for the white crowd, it glories in the blacks' humiliation.
Humiliation is the evening's main event. The ten black youths are blindfolded in a boxing ring, and the battle royal begins; it is a war of all against all, and the last man upright will be the winner. “Everyone fought hysterically. It was complete anarchy. Everybody fought everybody else.” The narrator is one of the final pair left standing, and he gets the beating of his life. Then, after further degradation, the young orator, bloody from his ordeal, is told to deliver his speech. Angry, he lets slip an unscripted call for social equality, and is immediately rebuked; he pleads confusion, the crowd is appeased, and he is rewarded with a calfskin briefcase.
Ellison here condenses the entire pre-civil-rights-era black predicament into the relation between hapless entertainer and vicious audience: one race's agony is the other's diversion. In the conjunction of black violence as white amusement, black lust for forbidden white flesh, black desire for respectability in white eyes, black defiance, and satanic white mockery, the scene has everything. But while the scene itself, in all its horrific abundance, is the fruit of Ellison's singular genius, it is by no means pure invention. It owes a great deal to the career of Jack Johnson.
The battle royal, with exclusively black participants and exclusively white onlookers, was a staple of Southern entertainment well into the 1940's, as one learns from Geoffrey Ward's riveting biography, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.1 Ward is best-known for his collaborations with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns; their four-hour film, Unforgivable Blackness, aired on PBS in January and is available on DVD.
The young Johnson, just getting started in his career, fought in some battles royal; the first was in Springfield, Illinois, in 1899. It was a winner-take-all affair, no blindfolds, and the white impresario offered $1.50 to the young black tramp who had gotten there by hopping freight trains from Texas—if he won. Johnson took on four other men, locals who ganged up on him from the opening bell; he whipped them all, telling the last one after he had knocked him down, “If you get up I will kill you.” The promoter, who took the winner's earnings for himself, bought Johnson a few beers and told him he had a great future. No speechmaking and no calfskin briefcase, but the moral was the same: be a good boy, and you'll make out all right.
Although he decided he would not be anybody's boy, Johnson made out all right just the same, at least for a while. In Ward's telling, the whole of his early career was a battle royal, and his opponents were the forces of white racism coming at him from every direction. Newspaper cartoons by the hundreds, perhaps the thousands, portrayed Johnson's white opponents in recognizable caricature but Johnson himself as “an inky shape with popping eyes and rubbery lips, by turns threatening and ludicrous. . . . Even in ostensibly objective news stories Johnson [was] called the ‘dinge,’ the ‘coon,’ the ‘stove,’ the ‘Texas Darky,’ the ‘big smoke,’ the ‘Ethiopian,’ the ‘Senegambian,’ and—more often than one can credit—simply ‘the nigger.’ ”
The fight game in those days seemed to have even less use for blacks than did white society in general. John L. Sullivan, who won the heavyweight crown in 1882 and held it for ten years—the first champion under the new rules requiring boxers to wear gloves—refused ever to fight a black challenger: “Any fighter who'd get into the same ring with a nigger loses my respect.” No black contender would get a title shot until 1908, when Tommy Burns agreed to defend against Johnson: “All niggers are alike to me, but I'll fight him even though he is a nigger,” Burns declared.
Taking on Johnson was not a shrewd career move. Early in the fight Burns called Johnson, who preferred a defensive style of deft cunning to the brawling common in that day, “a yellow cur,” and told him to fight like a white man. Johnson proceeded to take him apart, telling him what punch he was about to throw and then connecting with it; according to Burns's later testimony, Johnson even made an observation about the white fighter's wife that would have gotten him lynched had the audience heard it. (The fight took place in the very deep South—Sydney, Australia.)
In his 1927 autobiography, Johnson would insist that, “To me it was not a racial triumph”; but others disagreed. The novelist Jack London, who covered the fight as a journalist, summed up the prevailing distress: Burns “was a white man and so am I. Naturally, I wanted to see the white man win.”
No white man would beat Johnson for the next twelve years. No black man would, either, for Johnson refused ever to defend his title against one; there was little money to be made, and Johnson stood in greater danger of losing to a black than to any white challenger. The most formidable opponent he faced in that period was Jim Jeffries, touted by the fight promoter Tex Rickard as the “Hope of the White Race” and embraced as such by multitudes; one commentator ascribed to Jeffries the heritage earned by the battling white race at “Bunker Hill and Thermopylae and Hastings and Agincourt.”
The beating Johnson gave Jeffries made him cry out in pain; Jack London wrote that he could not bear to watch. But the entire nation did watch, and some of its enraged white citizens decided to dish out vengeance. Johnson's victory sparked race riots in which perhaps two dozen people were killed and hundreds were injured, nearly all of them black. Johnson called the rioters of both races scum.
In due course, even decent people of both races were calling Johnson himself scum, or much worse—and with reason. As exhilarating as is the story of his rise, so the story of his fall is woeful and dispiriting. In a world already hostile, Johnson made himself a world of trouble. Defining himself against the accommodationist Booker T. Washington, whom he found neither frank nor courageous, Johnson professed himself a new sort of Negro: “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist.”
Such bold moral clarity is admirable; but between the profession and the reality, an abyss opened. Johnson did not act as though there were no prejudice; he acted as though the world were rife with it, and he took pleasure in bringing that prejudice to a head. His demeanor was the moral equivalent of the pimp roll: he behaved obnoxiously, even hatefully, and then blamed the white world for hating him.
Pleasure-seeking with no regard for consequences was his favored style. In the year after he clinched the title, he bought five cars and drove them fast and recklessly, causing accidents; when pulled over for speeding, sometimes he would laugh as he paid the fine, and often he would claim his only offense was driving while black. At the age of sixty-eight he would plow his car into a telephone pole at 70 miles per hour and die hours later.
“I always take a chance on my pleasures,” he boasted of his passionate abandon. Sexual pleasures enjoyed pride of place; for them he took risks as great as those he took behind the wheel. He had a particular taste for white women—he claimed the black women he loved had bruised his ego—and was generally to be seen in the company of one or another white prostitute, whom he would introduce as Mrs. Jack Johnson. At a time when interracial marriage was forbidden in 36 states, he would marry three white women, one a prostitute, another a divorcée who had been kept by several racetrack habitués. His first wife, Etta Duryea, emotionally pole-axed by Johnson's relentless philandering and her parents' contempt for her choice of husband, killed herself; two weeks later Johnson was out partying with Lucille Cameron, an eighteen-year-old prostitute who would become his second wife.
In 1912, in the wake of a national outrage caused by the claim of Lucille's mother that he had abducted her daughter, Johnson was convicted under the Mann Act for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes (he had paid train fare for one of his prostitute companions from Pittsburgh to Chicago, where he had set her up in her own brothel). The conviction only enhanced the moral standing Johnson enjoyed in his own estimation: “Oh well. They crucified Christ, why not me?”
He bolted the country for Paris, where he said he visited Napoleon's tomb twice a week and was a regular at the opera. When he fought in town, the novelist and literary pinup Colette would attend, along with an elegant crowd in evening dress. Johnson remained on the lam in England and Spain until 1920. Then, after losing his world title to the latest Great White Hope, the behemoth Jess Willard, he came home and served nearly a year in the federal prison at Leavenworth. When he returned to Chicago after his release, 2,000 black admirers turned up at his sister's apartment to greet him.
Although there were prominent blacks who denounced Johnson, Booker T. Washington among the loudest, most continued to revere him, not least because whites hated him so. Geoffrey Ward, a white liberal, mostly reveres Johnson, too, and particularly admires the brazenness with which he lived his freewheeling sexual life. Ward carries this admiration to the point of sentimentality, though he remains just ambivalent enough to keep from being laughable. Regarding Johnson as a romantic pioneer who dared to love across the color line, he ignores the fact that Johnson treated his white women like whores (which many of them were), betraying them without compunction and beating them when he thought they needed it. Johnson used his erotic charm to dominate and humiliate not only his casual flings but also the women he supposedly loved. (His third wife, by her own account, was an exception; she said he treated her very well.)
He also flaunted his promiscuity as evidence not only of his own irresistible sexuality but that of black manhood at large. Although Ward neglects to mention this, one learns from David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and a biographer of Muhammad Ali,2 that, when sparring, Johnson used to wrap his penis in gauze in order to astonish white reporters. This preposterous male enhancement, playing upon whites' creepiest fantasies of black sexuality, points up that in his erotic life as in the rest of his life, Johnson was principally a showman who enjoyed baiting a hostile crowd.
Remnick calls Johnson—and Ward would certainly concur—“magnificently defiant, and defiantly magnificent.” That is, both of these writers understand the pleasure Johnson took in flouting the mores of his time, taunting the white racists and the “Booker T. Negroes,” to be a sign of virile rectitude. It might have been such a sign, had Johnson been a man protecting his most intimate life from public violation; instead, he was violating his private life and parading it in public for the pleasure of offending his enemies.
Ward takes the title of his book from a passage by the great black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote in 1914 that the “thrill of national disgust” at Johnson's “marital troubles” had little to do with his character and everything to do with his “unforgivable blackness.” While it is true enough that, in the eyes of many, Johnson's blackness was unforgivable, to more reasonable people, white and black alike, what was repellent then as it is now was his callousness, arrogance, recklessness, demonstrative immorality, and readiness to cry racism whenever he was condemned for his actions. Jack Johnson started out as the best thing to happen for a long time to boxing and to black America. He ended up as one of the worst things to happen to both in his day.
Johnson would be the last black heavyweight champion until 1937, his flamboyant bad-ass manner serving promoters as a perfect excuse to rebuild the race barrier. Joe Louis had to break it down all over again. His trainer, Jack Blackburn, told him from the start that, to have a shot at success, he would have to be seen as irreproachable—as the anti-Johnson.
Louis and Johnson's own relationship became one of mutual loathing. When Johnson bragged on a Harlem street that he had just made a killing by betting against Louis in the first Max Schmeling fight—the German boxer was Hitler's favorite athlete—the enraged crowd attacked him, and police had to break up the melee. As Ward writes, “Every time Louis was called ‘a credit to his race,’ the implication was that Jack Johnson had been a discredit to it.”
Ward intends us to understand that Johnson was no such thing. He also takes pleasure in pointing out that Louis, for his part, was by no means as good as he appeared. Louis did cheat compulsively on his wives, often with white women, among them Hollywood stars and starlets; he just made sure he was never photographed with them. And in his decline he suffered the violent paranoia that comes of cocaine addiction. But Ward goes on to insist that Louis's fake uprightness was useless anyway: sportswriters gave him racist nicknames, quoted him in “Uncle Remus dialect,” and portrayed him as a savage or even a jungle beast. The suggestion here is that most whites ultimately despised the apparently virtuous Louis just as they did the blatantly profligate Johnson, and that whites will be their racist selves no matter what black people do.
Selective editing is required to create that impression. Ward conveniently ignores that a profound change occurred in the way whites regarded Louis during his reign as champion, and that this change heralded a new tolerance and even a certain respect for black Americans in general. Chris Mead charted this transformation in his 1985 biography, Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America—a book that Ward cites as the source of some of his quotations about white contempt for Louis but otherwise prefers to leave unmentioned.
From Mead we learn, however, that the two fights Louis had in 1937 and 1938 with Max Schmeling—Louis lost the first bout and won the rematch—helped unite Americans against Nazi racism and made them more uncomfortable about racism here at home. In 1942, Louis fought a title bout against Buddy Baer and donated his entire winnings to a charity for families of servicemen killed in action; the nation lionized Louis for risking a title everyone said was worth a million dollars—some $12 million in today's money—in order to serve the cause. When Louis volunteered for the army, regard for his heroism swelled still further, although he was never to see action. “To a country deeply divided along racial lines,” Mead writes, “yet desperately wanting to believe it was united against a common foe, Louis was a symbol of national unity.”
Louis did more than just symbolize; he used his celebrity and his Washington connections to press for more equitable treatment of blacks in the army. Indeed, for many black Americans, Louis represented salvation itself. Richard Wright called him “the concentrated essence of black triumph over white.” Martin Luther King, Jr. told of a black prisoner in the 1930's South condemned to die by poison gas. “As the pellet dropped into the container, and gas curled upward, through the microphone [in the chamber] came these words: ‘Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis.’ ” There could be no more poignant testimony, King rightly said, to “the helplessness, the loneliness, and the profound despair of Negroes in that period.” He might have added that Louis's reign as champion of the world helped make their life less helpless, lonely, and desperate.
The same cannot justly be said of the reign of Muhammad Ali, though there are many who do say it. From his own imagined height, Ali condescended to Louis, but thought the world of Johnson. To James Earl Jones, who portrayed Johnson on Broadway in the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Great White Hope, Ali declared, “I grew to love the Jack Johnson image. I wanted to be rough, tough, arrogant, the nigger white folks didn't like.” In his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest (written with Richard Durham), Ali says that upon returning to the ring in 1970 after his suspension from boxing for draft evasion, he intended to dress for his first bout, against the white tomato can Jerry Quarry, as Johnson did for an evening out, in a pearl-gray derby and black striped coat, and to declare, “Jack, wherever you are, rest easy in your grave. This White Hope won't get away.” In the event, cooler heads seem to have prevailed.
One does not read of this in Ward's book; Ward says only that Ali modeled his boxing technique on Johnson's, and that he “saw, in the way the government pursued [Johnson] because of the way he chose to conduct his private life, the precursor of the way it was pursuing him because of his refusal to register for the draft during the Vietnam war.” Like Ward, David Remnick in King of the World considers Ali's draft resistance heroic, but in telling the whole story he leaves the reader thinking otherwise. Ali sought his draft exemption as a so-called Muslim minister who preached non-violence, yet he voiced public approval for savage beatings committed by his brothers in the Nation of Islam, and he favored the murder of apostates. He also told a Playboy interviewer that if a Black Muslim woman went with a white man, they both ought to die. And, despite the severe Muslim enforcement of married chastity, the publicly holy Ali enjoyed the private career of, as his doctor and friend Ferdie Pacheco put it, a “pelvic missionary.” Among writers as among fighters, disingenuous moral preening is transmitted down the generations.
Like Johnson, Ali was distinguished in what used to be called, a century ago, “mouth-fighting.” While keeping up a verbal barrage at his opponents, Johnson would toss off witty asides to the reporters and fans at ringside. For Ali, too, humiliating his opponent was as important as beating him physically, and that humiliation often served a racist purpose. His nastiest abuse, physical and verbal, was directed at the men he called the Black White Hopes: black fighters whom white people were betting on to beat him.
Floyd Patterson, one such black fighter, had assailed the Black Muslims as un-American purveyors of race hate; he earned an especially savage mauling. Ali, who could have knocked Patterson out easily, deliberately prolonged the agony, taunting him all the while, “Come on, American! Come on, white American!” Another was George Foreman, the champion whom he beat with Jack Johnson tactics in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire and who earlier, as Olympic gold medalist in 1968, had joyously waved the American flag in the ring as a riposte to the infamous black-power salute given by a pair of triumphant sprinters. Ali wrote of Foreman in The Greatest: “He is White America, Christianity, the Flag, the White Man, Porkchops.” In The Fight (1975), Norman Mailer records Ali's screaming at Foreman, “I'm going to beat your Christian ass, you white flag-waving bitch, you.”
According to Ali, Jesse Jackson once said that “Nothing shows the sickness in American society more than a prizefight between a White Hope and a black man.” There may be something to that, but not exactly as either Jackson or Ali intended. For the sickness is in both races, and Ali himself was a veritable plague of race hate. His moral influence on black America has equaled if not surpassed Martin Luther King's, except that Ali is the unacknowledged father of the worst in current black culture—hip-hop insolence and violence among black youths, truculent and absurd posturing among luminaries like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson himself.
Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali: each was the most famous black man of his time. On the face of it there is something disturbing about that distinction. That the best-known member of the race should be an athlete in the most brutal of sports hints at failure in more serious pursuits, and at white complicity in that failure.
Of course, it is not the fault of W.E.B. Du Bois or Ralph Ellison or Martin Luther King, Jr. that during their lifetimes they never soared so high in the popular estimation as these three large men renowned for smashing other large men in the face. That is just the way it is, and most people who would make heroes of such men know no better. But among their most fervent admirers and biographers there are also those who do know better, and who have nevertheless made cultural giants of moral pygmies like Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali. This truckling of intelligence to brutishness is one more disservice that the liberal intelligentsia does to blacks and whites alike.
1 Knopf, 492 pp., $26.95.
2 King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero (1998).