Many a time, Johnson could have knocked the guy out. But, if his opponent was white he'd have to suffer... His main object in life was to put the white man in his place.
Boxing historian Henry Cooper
in The Great Heavyweights, 1978
In 1908 Arthur John "Jack" Johnson became the first African American to hold the world heavyweight boxing championship. In an era of overt discrimination and Jim Crow laws, Johnson refused to be a good quiet "boy". Instead he had numerous affairs with white women, drove flashy sports cars, and lived a wild and flamboyant lifestyle.
In 1903, the Galveston, Texas born Johnson won the "Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World", but despite his repeated challenges, white champions refused to meet him in the ring. Finally, Tommy Burns gave Johnson a shot at the world heavyweight title and the two boxers met at Rushcutter's Bay on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1908. A partisan crowd of 20,000 watched in dismay as a black man became the heavyweight champion of the world.
Johnson's arrogance and lifestyle - plus the fact that he was black - made him the most hated champion in history.
In 1912, while having an affair with a white secretary, Johnson was arrested in Chicago for transporting an unmarried woman across state lines for "immoral purposes."
The arrest was under pretenses of the Mann Act, otherwise known as the White Slave Traffic Act - a law that was drafted primarily to prevent prostitution and the white slavery trade. In 1913 Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison and released on bond pending an appeal. While on bond he fled overseas rather than go to prison. Over the next few years he would fight in Paris, Buenos Aires, Havana, and Mexico City.
For years white boxing fans - including Jack London - sought The Great White Hope to dethrone Johnson, but he successfully defended his title until April 5, 1915, when he was knocked out by white American Jess Willard in the 26th round of a fight in Havana, Cuba. Many believe that Johnson threw the fight in order to have the charges against him dropped. However, the charges were not dropped and when Johnson returned to the United States in 1920 he was arrested by U.S. Marshals and sent to a federal prison in Kansas - Fort Leavenworth - to serve his year sentence.
After prison, Johnson boxed occasionally but never regained his former stature. After his career in boxing, Johnson, an amateur cellist and a connoisseur of Harlem night life, opened his own supper club, Club Deluxe, at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. He also lectured, sold stocks, and worked as a movie extra. Johnson died as the result of an automobile accident near Raleigh, North Carolina, in June 1946. The Howard Sackler play The Great White Hope is based on Jack Johnson's life. In 1971 it was made into a movie starring James Earl Jones
Jack Johnson remains one of boxing's greatest fighters. Some consider him to be the greatest heavyweight of all time and most boxing historians have him at least in their top five or ten. Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.