"The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here. That this might be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." (Randy Roberts)
The Battle of the Century in Reno, Nevada circa 1910 courtesy http://onmilwaukee.com/images/articles/ja/jackjohnsonmke/jackjohnsonmke_fullsize_story1.jpg.
Black American Jack Johnson started boxing as a teenager in Galveston, Texas. A relatively new sport, boxing was banned in some states. In the late 1800's, Blacks were permitted to box as long as they didn't compete for the ultimate title, Heavyweight Champion of the World. Johnson made considerable money winning numerous fights against both blacks and whites. However, one opponent eluded him, James Jeffries, the Heavyweight Champion of the World. He refused to fight a Black, and chose to retire instead.
In 1908, new heavyweight champion Tommy Burns agreed to box Jack Johnson in Australia for the hefty sum of $30,000. After Johnson beat on Burns for fourteen rounds, the match was stopped and Johnson declared the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Johnson biographer Randy Roberts explained: "The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here. That this might be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." (http://www.pbs.org/unforgivableblackness/about/)
Johnson's victory sparked a search for a "great white hope", someone to challenge Johnson for the title. James Jeffries returned to the ring to fight Johnson. "The Battle of the Century" took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910. Johnson won the match in the 15th round, sparking nationwide race riots. "Congress eventually passed an act banning the interstate transport of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson, beating his white opponents, would provoke further unrest."
Equally troubling for America was Johnson's penchant for white women. He was frequently seen in the company of white prostitutes Hattie McClay and Belle Schreiber. In 1910, congress passed the Mann Act prohibiting the transportation of women in interstate and foreign commerce "for the purposes of prostitution, debauchery or any other immoral purpose." Johnson did not take well to being told what to do. As James Earl Jones explained: "He was a self defined man. And this issue of being black was not that relevant to him. But the issue of his being free was very relevant." He was about to lose that freedom.
In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act after Belle Schreiber testified against him in court. Johnson fled the country and spent several years as a fugitive in Europe. In the meantime, he lost his world title to Jess Willard in Cuba. Finally, in 1920, Johnson returned to America where he served his time in prison. In 1946, after someone directed a racist comment at him in a restaurant, he drove home, swerved and was killed in an accident.