Hit or Myth

Examining the Legends of the World of Sports

One of those journalists was the renowned novelist Jack London. In his dispatch from Sydney, London called for a "great white hope" to "remove the golden smile from Johnson's face," starting the bigoted ballyhoo that would surround the fighter. The man London had in mind was former champ Jim Jeffries, who hadn't fought in six years. By the time they clashed on July 4, 1910 (with Johnson winning by an easy 15th-round knockout), the flames of racism had been duly fanned, and celebrating blacks in several American cities were lynched and shot.

Howard Sackler's 1968 play about Johnson, The Great White Hope, continued the body of literature supporting the myth that Johnson was a self-conscious symbol of black power, and, ultimately, a tragic figure. Much of Johnson's behavior supports the opposite, however: He wasn't particularly sympathetic to the plight of American blacks, and treated them with disdain when approached for an autograph or handshake. He caroused and was seen in public with white women—a fact which appalled many blacks as well as whites. After he lost his title (in 1915), he continued to box, to perform at vaudeville shows, and to make and lose money—just as he had when he was champion.

Henry Ford even gave Johnson a new car every year; he liked the publicity he got in newspapers when Johnson was stopped and given speeding tickets. And if fight manager Dan Morgan is to be believed, Johnson, in middle age, wanted to atone for what he called his "wild life" by giving inspirational speeches at church benefits, hospitals, and military bases. He was on his way to one such appearance in 1946 when he wrapped his latest present from Ford around a tree and was killed.

Jack Johnson was neither a symbol of black America nor a tragic victim. If Johnson could have seen the symbols others attached to his life, he'd have had the same contempt for them that he had for critics and admirers alike in his own lifetime.

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