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October 17, 2009

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)

Filed under: Documentaries — Tags: , , , — @ 8:04 pm

Jack Johnson

People, this is the “real” hurricane that Bob Dylan talked about in his song of the same title, John Arthur Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946) or better known as Jack Johnson or nicknamed the “Galveston Giant”.
This African American fighter, born in Texas, lived during some troubled times where America was ruled and leaded by an all white regime, for which the “free negroes” where to be kept still apart, totally segregated from the white folks, even in the northern cities. Those northern cities, where the white folks have not even cohabited with the African Americans, where extremely anti black. But, hey, congressmen and even the president of the united states, in fact where quoted using prejudice comments, and the papers were not exception. Looks like Lincoln and the fathers of this nation meant “you are free to live where the white folk tells you to”; liberty under today’s understanding was not existent for an African american during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Jack Johnson at his best

Jack started his career in a world where you couldn’t fight a Caucasian boxer, he had to make himself into the boxing scenario by fighting other African Americans pugilists, which they were actually tougher that their white colleagues. He reached the point where he had no opponent to fight, he won them all.

Jack Johnson

The white public worked extra hours trying to figure out how no member of the “supreme” white race was as strong, agile and smart in the ring as Jack was. Nevertheless, what really irritated the whites was not only the fact that Jack was becoming rich, and for a black person that wasn’t very common in those days, but it was the fact that Jack Johnson had a taste for white women. Jack commented many times that he is not to tell whom he can be with or not, he is no slave.

Jack Johnson and his wardrobe

He received critics from both whites and blacks. Other African Americans criticized him for being extravagant, not humble,  dressing all those fancy clothes, speeding expensive cars and being all the time surrounded by white women. his own kind thought that this black figure could bring them only harm and tears with the white institutions. And they were not far from what unfolded.

Jack Johnson

This Ken Burns´s documentary is almost 100% composed of  black and white stills of the time  while some actual and original film footage is also used. Samuel L. Jackson plays Jack Johnson’s voice reading Jack’s diary and other textual sources of the time, mostly papers.  The camera moves around the old black and white pictures of the time to give the documentary a motin effect. Interviews are also part of this feature, where boxing experts and black celebrities comment on the times, Jack and his career.

Jack Johnson in his car

Mr. Johnson was not a revolutionary, he was simply a man that lived before his time, he was not prejudiced against other races and colors, he just thought to be natural for any individual, to do his will in a free US, especially if you are rich and famous. He would travel the country with his manager and white companions fighting other boxers, most of them black as well and being generously paid for a night fight, what could take weeks to earn to an average colored man.

Jack Johnson with some friends

Jack was a calm, strong and smart fighter and this caught the eyes of the press. This fighter would not storm into the ring aggressively like many Irish boxers; he would take his time to avoid being punished at all time and deceived you, intelligently, to strike you at the right moment. He was undefeated, had a great smile and he was “cool”.
After his all American trip in search for the next contingent ended and he was the all black world champion, he had naturally to face white fighters and this he tried for a long time, being rejected by these, for they were sure they would be defeated and with them, the title would be lost to the “inferior”black race.

Jack Johnson showing off in from of the movie camera

In a totally racist white America, by 1902, Jack won at least in 27 occasions, against white and black contingents until, at least, his first real chance to win the world title when he was 24: in L.A., against Jack Jeffries, the younger brother of at the time current World Champion, Jim Jeffries. Five rounds took Johnson to take down Jack Jeffries, at the end of which Jack Johnson said to Jim Jeffries: “I could take you too”. But Jim F. many times admitted that he would never fight J. Johnson for he didn’t want the title to go to a black man. Jeffries would retire to his ranch and hanged the gloves.

Tommy Burns against Jack Johnson 1908 in Sydney

Jack ultimately took the World title from Canadian Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908 in front of an almost all white racist stadium. Knowing that the fight will make it to the american theaters, the police  stopped the camera man from continuing filming the fight in the midst of the 14th round, right at he moment were Mr. Johnson was to knock out the whit boxer in order to avoid more white race humiliation. At the age of 30, Jack Johnson was the heavyweight champion of the world. But the white supremacists will not accept his victory arguing that Burns had never held the title and that Jim Jeffries still was undefeated World champion.

Jack Johnson

Johnson moved to Chicago and started a new period in his live participating in shows in theaters where he would perform doing physical tricks showing his athletic capabilities. Later on, he would find himself other fighters to be defeated until Jim Jeffries agreed to come back to the ring for a $101.000 price and 2/3 of the filmographic rights. The chosen city to hold the fight would be Reno, Nevada, one of the cities where still boxing was legal. Jeffries had to get himself fit to the fight and managed to loose 25 pounds gained during the retirement years at his farm. In return, Johnson made big Jeffrie hit the ground in the 15th round, and later on Jeffrei would declare to his friends: “I could never win Jack Johnson at my best”.

Riots after Jack Johnson´s victory

Riots would follow all over the US, started by bitter white folks, taken the lives of many black people. A white fellow would try to assassinate Johnson at his house in Chicago.

The white public and authorities couldn’t digest interracial marriage and passed a bill prohibiting white women slavery and prostitution. The fact that Johnson had some prostitutes as personal companions, drove the FBI to open a case against Johnson, sent teams to look for someone to stand against the champion in a court of law and since they couldn’t defeat him in the ring, the did it in the court: an all white jury agreed (like Bob dylan would put it) and gave him 1 year in prison. Johnson scape and spent some time in foreign countries till he voluntarily accepted to spend the year in an american jail.

I will leave the rest for you to see.

Two links to nowadays issues on the topic of the documentary
1.- At this time congressman McCain presses Obama to pardon black boxer? and right this wrong made in the past.
2.- Judge refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple.
See this extracted from usatoday Posted by Doug Stanglin October 17, 2009:

Louisiana JP has no regrets over denying marriage license

Baton Rouge’s WAFB-TV reports that state Rep. Regina Barrow of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus has has signed off on a formal complaint requesting that the judiciary commission review the actions of the justice of the peace.
The justice of the peace at the center of the controversy tells WAFB TV in an exlcusive interview that he has no regrets over his actions and would do it again.
“It’s kind of hard to apologize for something that really and truly down in your heart you don’t feel you’ve done wrong,” Keith Bardwell told WAFB’s David Spunt on Saturday.
“I don’t regret what I did and if it ever came up again, I’d have to do the same thing,” Bardwell tells WAFB.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in a statement Bardwell’s practices and comments were deeply disturbing.
Not only does his decision directly contradict Supreme Court rulings, it is an example of the ugly bigotry that divided our country for too long,” she said.
Louisiana’s governor and a U.S. senator today have called for the ouster of the justice of the peace who refused to marry an interracial couple, saying his actions clearly broke the law, the Associated Press reports.
The state’s Legislative Black Caucus and constitutional rights groups have also called for an investigation of Bardwell or his resignation.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement a nine-member commission that reviews lawyers and judges in the state should investigate, the AP reports.
“Disciplinary action should be taken immediately — including the revoking of his license,” Jindal said.

Original post:
A Louisiana justice of the peace who refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple last week says he’s no racist but has drawn a sharp rebuke from civil rights organizations in the state, The Daily Star reports.
The couple say they plan to consult the U.S. Justice Department about filing a discrimination complaint.
Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, defends his actions by saying that it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long, The Star says.
“I’m not a racist,” Bardwell says. “I do ceremonies for black couples right here in my house. My main concern is for the children.”
Beth Humphrey, 30, and her boyfriend, Terence McKay, 32, both of Hammond, said they tried to get a marriage license last week but were told the JP will not sign licenses for interracial marriages.
“I simply can’t believe he can do that. That’s blatant discrimination,” Humphrey says, according to the newspaper.
Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Marjorie R. Esman called Bardwell’s move both “tragic and illegal,” the newspaper says.
Pat Morris, local NAACP president, says she was shocked to hear that the choice of a spouse is still an issue in the parish.
Bardwell, who has been a JP for 34 years, says the state attorney general told him years ago that he would eventually get into trouble for not performing interracial marriages, The Star says.
“I told him if I do, I’ll resign,” Bardwell says. “I have rights too. I’m not obligated to do that just because I’m a justice of the peace.”


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