Jack Johnson was a turn-of-the-century Muhammad Ali - a black man who could stylishly frustrate, taunt and dominate his white ring opponents with unparalleled boxing skills and an equally unrivaled gift of gab. All this while racial epithets were being hurled at him by angry crowds - and by the sporting press.
To the sportswriters of the day, Johnson was "The Dinge," "The Ethiopian" or "The Big Smoke." "Jack Jeffries resembled a Greek god," the Los Angeles Times assured its readers before his meeting with Johnson in 1902, "while Johnson was just a good-natured, black animal - a long, lean, bullet-headed, flat-chested coon."
FOR THE RECORD - In Monday's editions, a Sports article on the PBS Jack Johnson documentary incorrectly reported the name of the film's narrator. His name is Keith David.
The Sun regrets the errors.
But Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, was a well-read history buff who admired Napoleon. He not only drove fast cars bought with his ring earnings, but also was industrious enough to develop a wrench to repair them - and to own the patent for the tool. Yet he contributed to his own downfall by flaunting his relationships with white women.
Johnson's story is captured in a documentary by Ken Burns that airs on PBS (MPT/channels 22, 26, 67) tonight and tomorrow at 9 p.m. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson gets its title partly from a term coined by W.E.B. DuBois in an attempt to capture the extreme white hatred for a man who needed to campaign nearly 14 years before a white man gave him a shot at the world title.
The program debuts on the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday holiday, significant because, as the film's narrator, actor David Keith, says in the opening, "Jack Johnson insisted on being free. ... Jack Johnson took orders from no man. While most African-Americans struggled merely to survive, Jack Johnson reveled in his riches and fame.
"When black Americans were expected to defer to whites, Jack Johnson battered them to the ground. To most whites, and to some African-Americans, Johnson was a perpetual threat ... a dark menace and a danger to the natural order of things."
As a threat to the white establishment, Johnson ended up serving time in prison, but an effort, timed to coincide with Burns' documentary and backed by several members of Congress, is seeking to get the late fighter a presidential pardon.
Led by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, lawmakers won approval for a "sense of the Senate" resolution urging President Bush to "expunge from the annals of American criminal justice a racially motivated abuse of the federal government's prosecutorial authority."
In Washington on Thursday, McCain, a longtime boxing fan, said he and Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy would soon introduce new legislation "with more teeth in it."
"He's passionate about it, and he wants to do something else," said Andrea Jones, McCain's press secretary.
"I hope that everyone who has the opportunity will watch the Ken Burns documentary," McCain said. "This is a great athlete, a controversial athlete who was treated in the most disgraceful and despicable fashion because of his race."
Burns, also in Washington on Thursday, told The Washington Post he was contacted last Monday by a deputy counsel at the White House. Burns said he was told the White House had received the petition and its material was being reviewed.
"When George Bush was the governor of Texas, he issued a decree that March 31 [Johnson's birthday] was Jack Johnson Day from 1996 through 2000," Burns told The Sun. "I don't see any reason why President Bush shouldn't pardon Jack Johnson."
In 1913, three years after defeating Jim Jeffries in the biggest fight of his career, Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act, a law whose enactment in 1910 was intended to stop the transport of women across state lines for immoral purposes. An all-white jury convicted Johnson of transporting a woman, who was white, across state lines for immoral purposes.
Not one to back down
Johnson was far from a model citizen. He frequented brothels. He slept with, dated and married white women "at a time," the documentary says, "when the mere suspicion that a black man had flirted with a white woman could cost him his life."
Johnson fled to Canada and Europe, but after seven years, he returned, struggling financially, to America. Johnson was arrested and served nine months in prison.
The sinewy Johnson, who stood 6 feet 1 1/2 and weighed between 192 and 200 pounds in his prime, had a career record of 91-14-12 (52 knockouts). He sported finely tailored suits and gold-capped front teeth. "He was the original gangsta," says Burns, whose documentaries Baseball, Jazz and The Civil War also dealt with race.
"With his strut and swagger, the long coats, the sharp threads, the bling-bling, the entourage and the bankroll, Jack Johnson was flaunting the conventions of society as if he was above or outside of the law," Burns says. "He's an utterly modern man who would be at home in society today."