Jack Johnson: A Rebel Without a Cause?

by Theresa Runstedtler

In a recent post on SBNation, Bomani Jones compared Money May (Floyd Mayweather) to Jack Johnson:

Mayweather has basically taken the persona of a great counterpuncher from a century ago, Jack Johnson, and modernized it. He’s impenetrable in the ring and insufferably flashy outside of it. But where Johnson was fueled by his insistence to do whatever he damn well pleased because he was Jack Johnson, Mayweather is far more calculating.

The comparison is definitely bang on, and one that I’ve made in the past. However, as the author of the new biography, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line, I have to respectfully disagree with his characterization of Johnson as a kind of “rebel without a cause.”

But, it’s not necessarily Jones’s fault for viewing Johnson in this way. The popular memory of the embattled first black heavyweight champion of the world (1908-1915) is one of a needlessly bombastic prizefighter with neither a political consciousness nor a moral rudder. As the oft-repeated story goes, spoiled by fame and fortune, he descended into a brazen lifestyle of ostentatious consumption, masculine bravado and interracial mixing. Johnson had not only brought on his own persecution, but also made things all the more difficult for other black fighters.

Yet if you look at Johnson’s many statements in both the black American press and foreign newspapers, a much different picture emerges – one of a very self-aware fighter who understood that others saw his actions in and out of the ring as political (even subversive) in the midst of Jim Crow, Western imperialism and global white supremacy.

Let me give you a few snapshots from the book.

Johnson on the eventual decline of white supremacy, Baltimore Afro-American (1909):

Johnson offered this assessment of white supremacy in the wake of his triumph over Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia: “While my people — the descendants of my ancestors in Africa — are increasing in numbers, the white man is decreasing all over the earth. Read the figures — those of your own country, of the United States, of England, of France, of all the white world.” Pointing to the birth rates of “the colored peoples of India, Japan and China” and those of his “own race,” he challenged, “Do you think it is to go on forever, this domination of the millions of the people of color by a handful of white folks? I think it is not. It may not come in my time or in yours, but the time will come when the black and yellow man will hold the earth, and the white man will be regarded just as the colored man is now.”

Johnson on black history and African contributions to civilization in La Vie au grand air (1911):

The first episode of Johnson’s serial autobiography published in France disputed the popular belief that black people had no history of which to be proud:

Our memories are passed down, above all, by the tradition of father to son. Whites don’t believe it, but we are also proud of our ancestors and during the long days and even longer nights, when we knew neither schools nor books, we still passed on our memories from past centuries. . . . Who constructed the Pyramids 40 centuries ago? Which race built the Egyptian monuments before such things were known in Europe, where the inhabitants, wearing animal skins, lived a miserable existence in caves?

Johnson on British colonialism in Health & Strength (1911):

After Home Office Secretary Winston Churchill declared Johnson’s fight against British champion “Bombardier” Billy Wells illegal, and not in the best interests of the nation and empire, Johnson poked fun at British hypocrisy:

There were two missionary wives out there in Africa talking about their servants, as women always do when they get together. They both had black servants… One of them had just engaged a maid from her husband’s church — a ‘convert,’ they called her. ‘Oh, my dear,’ cried her friend, ‘I would never have a Christian servant on any account!’ There’s a lot of logic in that, isn’t there? If that missionary wife preferred the heathen to the convert, what was her husband drawing his salary for? But that’s you English all over. You call the black man your brother; you say he is equal with you; that we’re all one family. I must say you’ve got a queer way of showing your brotherly feelings.

Johnson on opportunities for black Americans in Mexico (1919):

During the last years of his exile, Johnson was an advocate for African American settlement in Mexico. Advertisements for Johnson’s Land Company appeared in the socialist Messenger and other black newspapers:

COLORED PEOPLE

You, who are lynched, tortured, mobbed, persecuted and discriminated against in the boasted ‘Land of Liberty,’ the United States,

OWN A HOME IN MEXICO

Where one man is as good as another, and it is not your nationality that counts, but simply you.

There are so many other examples that attest to Johnson’s awareness of his racial and political significance (for better or worse) in the early 1900s. At the same time, Johnson was a master of promotion. Much like Mayweather and his “Money Team,” Johnson traveled with his nephew Gus Rhodes, who sent back numerous reports of his uncle’s experiences abroad to the Chicago Defender. And, Johnson often used his unique platform in the foreign press to speak out about the continued oppression of black people in Jim Crow America. He aired the United States’ dirty racial laundry wherever he went.

Johnson also knew how to effectively pitch his fights in the press. For his 1914 bout against the white American Frank Moran in Paris, he framed it as a racial revenge match to help drum up publicity. Johnson told sympathetic French fight fans: “Even though I respect Frank Moran, I must make him pay for all the insults of the Americans. The Americans are already dancing around my scalp. They believe I’m finished, used up. It is not yet time for the whites to have my scalp.”

If anything, Mayweather is taking a page from Johnson’s playbook, bringing old-school publicity techniques back to the ailing twenty-first-century boxing game. However, unlike Johnson, Mayweather now has the opportunity to control the flow of profits into his own bank account. Hopefully, in time, Money May will prove that he is a rebel with more than just a thirst for dollars.

Piece originally posted at Theresa Runstedler’s blog


About the Author:

Theresa Runstedtler is Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University at Buffalo and, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Humanities Forum for the 2011-2012 academic year. She is the author of Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (University of California Press). Visit her blog at and follow her on twitter @klecticAcademik.