01 July 2020
nicolas lee / nurphoto / getty image
nicolas lee / nurphoto / getty image

On 4 july 1910, the African-American boxer Jack Johnson (right) defends his world heavyweight championship against Jim Jeffries in a bout promoted as “the fight of the century.” Johnson was the first black boxer to hold the title, after defeating Tommy Burns of Canada in 1908. Burns had refused to fight Johnson, who followed him around the world for two years, purchasing ringside tickets to all his title defences and taunting him until he accepted his challenge. Johnson won after the police stopped the fight, fearing a riot.

“No Armenian massacre would compare with the hopeless slaughter,” the novelist Jack London wrote about the fight in a syndicated column. He accepted that though “as a white man,” he had wanted Burns to win, Johnson was the better fighter. London called upon Jeffries, who had retired as the undefeated champion in 1904, to “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face.”

In 1909, Johnson defeated three opponents, all of whom had been billed as “the great white hope.” Jeffries agreed to come out of retirement the following year, “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” Almost twenty thousand people attended the fight, held on a custom-built stage in Reno. Johnson knocked Jeffries down thrice in the fifteenth round, with the fight ending when the challenger’s cornermen broke up the referee’s count.

The former president Theodore Roosevelt reportedly reacted with “an exploding expletive.” Race riots broke out in most major cities, killing over twenty people. “Do not point your nose too high,” a New York Times editorial told black readers the day after the fight. “You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none.” Many states banned films of the fight, and Congress banned the interstate distribution of prizefight films.

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