Thursday, December 26, 2013

Jack Johnson and Black Hopes

As the story has been told endless times, when Jack Johnson became the heavyweight champion after defeating Tommy Burns 105 years ago, the white press started a quest for a white hope to rescue the championship back. However, the press quickly learned that white heavyweights could not defeat Johnson, and the other top fighters, Sam McVey, Sam Langford, and Joe Jeannette, were black men. In 1911, one writer nervously reported “We [white people] don’t seem to have advanced much further in our investigations as to the identity of the white man who is to wrest the crown of supremacy from the colored race.”  The writer went on to declare, “We want a real good man, too and we want him badly. With Sam McVey making almost even break of it with Langford, the four top places must be conceded to the representatives of the colored race. . . .  Either could almost certainly have disposed, with ease, of the very best white man in the world, and the conclusion is not a very gratifying one.” Fearing that white fighters could not beat Johnson, and realizing that Johnson’s well-documented “bad Nigger” antics became increasingly more threatening to whites, the white press started to promote other “colored champions” to beat Johnson. In other words, they would settle for a black hope, as long as he was deemed a good black. As Lester A. Walton of the black newspaper the New York Age noted “After searching every nook and corner of the earth for a ‘white hope’ to give Champion Jack Johnson a serious argument at fisticuffs, and all to no good purpose, those most active in this world-wide search have hit upon another plan of attack—to try and recapture the championship title through a black hope.”

The two favorites were Joe Jeannette and Sam Langford. Jeannette had respectable qualities that whites could live with. “Although some people look down upon Negroes, no white man ever conducted himself better in any branch of the sport than Joe Jeannette,” reasoned one white writer. Jeannette had “the good will of the white people” and was a credit to his race. The white press also loved Sam Langford. His nickname, the “Boston Tarbaby,” conjured up images of the old plantation days of the docile Negro. At one point, Langford even went as far as suggesting “I may be colored, but I’ve got a white heart,” signifying that he was safe for whites unlike Johnson.

For the white press, the issue of sex and marriage was never far from the conversation in context of Johnson and the black hopes. The press clamored for a hope in the ring, because Johnson challenged white men’s claim to physical superiority and sexual power. On the subject marriage and family, a writer for the New Orleans Picayune noted “There has been more scandal connected with Jack Johnson since he became prominent in pugilism than there was with the names of all the other negro boxers put together. Take the case of Jeannette and Langford” the paper noted “they are both married men who follow fighting for the sake of earning enough to keep their families as comfortable as they can.” The writer finished by noting that Johnson, on the other hand, was a black man whose “private life has been such that it has often been wondered that any well-regulated community would stand for him, and he has done more to turn people against black fighters than all the men of his race put together.” In 1910, while promoting his client for the championship, Sam Langford’s manager told a southern newspaper that Langford and Johnson were two different types of blacks. Under the byline that read “Negroes but Different,” his manager tried to convince white southerners that Langford saved his money while Johnson would die a pauper, and he also noted that Langford bought a home for his wife in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Remarks like that played perfectly in the South, since white Southerners hated the nomad Johnson constantly parading around with white women.

Langford’s quest to unseat Johnson did not sit well with some black newspapermen. Even though he reportedly lived clean and harbored their middle-class values, they did not trust Langford as champion. In August 1910, after hearing a rumor that Langford would dope Johnson if they fought and then let a white man beat him, a writer remarked, “To think such a villainous plot should be hatched against our noble Jack, and for one of his own race to participate in it, gives us much pain.” The paper further suggested that Langford had a lot to learn about being a race man, and that “if he will but walk in the noble footsteps of the first colored champion of the world, he will teach these petty whites that the time for buying and selling a Negro has long since passed.” Four years later in 1914 after Johnson said he would fight Langford, a black reporter claimed blacks were afraid of Langford and would “have no particular love for him.” The paper added that rumors suggesting Langford would let a white fighter beat him “make even their [blacks] regard for him grow less.” This contempt only lasted until Jess Willard defeated Johnson in April 1915. Soon after Willard became the champion, the black press supported Langford as the next rightful champion. Unfortunately for Langford and other black fighters until 1937, white champions continued to draw the color line.  

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