Friday, January 26, 2018

Jack Johnson

Have you ever heard of Jack Johnson? Not the singer; the boxer.

I hadn't, until I saw the Ken Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness.

It's quite an amazing story in many regards. Here is a man who was born in Texas in 1878, just after the US Civil War, and suffered all the deprivations the African Americans of the day suffered. And yet, he grew up with a strong sense of self, proud of his heritage, and unwilling to compromise his own beliefs at a time when that could easily have gotten him killed. But, to be fair, the man wasn't a saint. He drank hard, and was quite promiscuous. And while he was a staunch supporter of his own rights as a human being, and unwilling to bend to the racially motivated laws of his day, he didn't appear to extend those rights beyond his own horizons.

So given all this, why am I mentioning him here?


But before I tell you more, let me tell you a bit about his story.

Just after the turn of the 20th century, he was a rising figure in the often illegal world of pro boxing. He would go to various towns and fight people for money, making more in a single night than most people of the day would make in a week. It was good money, especially for a Black boy from Texas.

By 1903 he was becoming a household name.

It was at this time that he sought the title of world heavyweight boxing champion. Unfortunately, due to racial prejudice, he was not allowed to fight for that title. There were concerns, usually unspoken, that if a Black man were to win, it would empower the downtrodden community. It would make them think that they were "above their station". The effects of racism are nasty, indeed.

It wasn't until 1908, after many years of seeking to be given the chance to fight, that he was finally able to claim the title that he so rightly deserved. After following the current title-holder around Europe, shadowing him and taunting him at all his fights, he was finally given a chance at the title in Australia. It was at this fight that he soundly walloped the champ.

But that's not where this story ends.

You see, even though he beat the reigning champion, this wasn't really the man he had wanted to defeat. Because, you see, dear Reader, the previous champion had retired undefeated. There were many among the racist boxing fans who held out that while he had defeated the current champ, he never would have been able to defeat this other man, who was, in their eyes, the real champ.

It took another couple of years before someone came up with enough money to entice this other boxer out of retirement.

In the meantime, during those intervening two years, numerous other fights were set up. It was said that if you were White, tall, and muscular, you weren't safe from the scouts looking for someone to beat Johnson. One and all, these wheat stalks fell.

For those two years, the White people in the States called on the former champion, who had been undefeated when he retired, to come out of retirement to fight Johnson and "teach him a lesson". Well, they didn't say it that nicely, but that was the intent. They called this former champion "the great White hope".

Now, it is also worth pointing that at this time these big fights were filmed and shown in the movie theatres across the country. While this fueled the hope and pride of the Black people, it incited the White folks. People were upset, amongst the White populace, that there were these films showing a Black man beating a White man. It got to the point where Congress was asked to pass a law making it illegal to show these films. They were afraid of fights breaking out in the theatres. Of course, the theatres at the time were segregated, so it is unclear how these fights were to begin or who was to fight whom, but that was the state of mind at the time.

Anyways, the money was raised and the fight between Johnson and the former champ was set. It was huge news. It was so tense, though, that California would not give the permit for the fight, so it was moved to Reno, Nevada, thus beginning a long tradition of sporting events going to Nevada when all else failed. In Reno, security was so tight that there were guards at all the gates who were taking away firearms from anyone entering, because they were afraid someone might try to shoot Johnson. Of course, they weren't concerned about Johnson's life. They were more concerned about someone killing him before the fight began and thus depriving them of their profits. Or so I guess.

But there was tension. People saw it as a chance to vindicate the superiority of the White people, and the newspapers made it even worse. They were so full of racist propaganda that it is heartbreaking to read. Even the New York Times said, "If the Black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their White neighbors." And it wasn't just confined to the US. Editorials in England were just as bad, not to mention many other countries. It seemed as if a large part of the planet was on edge at the thought of this fight.

Long story short, though: Johnson trounced this guy.

It was such a humiliating fight, that it seemed as if Johnson were playing with him. He even chatted with audience members while the fight was going on. Of course he made it last 15 rounds, for anything less would be too much for the delicate sensibilities of the White audience. He had to make it at least look as though the guy had a put up a good fight.

It was only after the fight, though, that the real riots began. All across the States, there were race riots. Dozens of people, mostly Black, died in these riots, and hundreds more were injured. The articles in the newspapers were scathing. The White folk were so genuinely upset that a Black man was able to beat their hero that they seemed to be looking for almost any excuse to kill a Black man in return. The newspaper headlines, articles and editorials of those days are truly frightening to read, putting to shame what was seen in them before this fight.

But even this wasn't the worst of it.

What really made the White public upset was his wife. A year after this fight, he married a White woman. A few months later, she committed suicide, but this is in no way on his shoulders. He seems to have done everything he could to try to help her. A short time after that, he was courting another White woman. By this point, the US had passed the Mann Act, which forbid transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. As this second woman was from Wisconsin, and he was living in Chicago, Illinois, they were able to somehow get him on this charge, even though the law in no way was intended to be used against consenting adults. So now he is arrested for courting a White woman, whom, as history shows, he would later marry.

Now, why am I telling all about this?

Because this was in 1912. This whole thing was going on while 'Abdu'l-Baha was in North America.

We often hear about how much He talked about the importance of race unity, but we don't often think about the actual day to day life of the average person in that day. This was the backdrop of the time during which 'Abdu'l-Baha came to America. This was what was making headlines when He encouraged Louis Gregory and Louisa Matthew to marry.

For me, it puts His talks in Promulgation of Universal Peace into a sharper light.

Now, with this in mind, I'm going to go back to those talks and re-read them again. I suspect that they will read quite a bit differently to me now that I have heard the story of Jack Johnson.

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