By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 14, 2005
Author Laura Hillenbrand introduced a whole new generation to Seabiscuit with her wonderful book on the thoroughbred champion of the 1930s, and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns hopes to do the same with former heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson.
Burns' Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson airs from 9-11 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on PBS, and seeks to paint a new portrait of the fighter using the brush of early 20th century racism.
As he did so well in previous works with expansive series on the Civil War, jazz and baseball, Burns delivers another stirring effort thanks to countless photos, fight footage and insight from a cast of those who know Johnson's story best.
In Johnson, he has a flamboyant subject rich in possibilities. Burns takes a sports story, wraps it in race and retells it with the proper perspective. Though over-romanticized at times, it tackles issues that remain uncomfortable for many today.
"You can't be honest about American history without bumping into race, and when you bump into race ... it comes to a profound crux when it comes to the story of Jack Johnson," Burns told the Times in a telephone interview.
Johnson fought prejudice in a brutal era for blacks. From 1901-10, 846 people were lynched in the United States; 754 were black. In that atmosphere, Johnson's success and the way he proudly carried himself was frowned upon, and his many relationships with white women further incensed his critics.
"In the end, the story is about his freedom," a freedom that Johnson would not compromise, Burns said.
In the early 1900s, there was no such thing as a universally recognized black champion. Johnson chased the heavyweight titleholder, Jim Jeffries, all over the country, begging for a fight. But Jeffries, like most fighters of his day, refused to fight a black man. He retired undefeated in 1905.
A new champion, Tommy Burns, was crowned in 1906, and Johnson got his opportunity. They met in Australia in 1908, and Johnson humiliated Burns. He was so dominant police intervened in the 14th round. Fights were recorded and played in movie houses, but the police ordered the filming stopped to spare America from witnessing a black man knocking out a white man.
When no fit challengers (Great White Hopes, as they were called) could be found to take back the title, Jeffries was lured out of retirement in 1910.
He fared no better than Burns. Jeffries' corner threw in the towel in the 15th round of the Battle of the Century.
So racially charged was America, the result set off riots across the country, leading to scores of dead African-Americans who dared to cheer Johnson's victory.
The title he so craved became a curse.
Unable to get Johnson in the ring, white America was determined to get him outside of it. He was persecuted for his relationships with white women, and convicted under the Mann Act (or White Slavery Act) of taking a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes (Burns is urging President Bush to pardon Johnson).
Johnson fled the country and remained a fugitive for seven years, growing old and fat and losing his title to Jess Willard in 1915 in Cuba. He returned to the United States and served his time, but never fought for the title again.
Not until Joe Louis in 1937 would there be another black champion, but the new champ did everything he could to distance himself from Johnson.
The Jack Johnson story is unlikely to be embraced like Seabiscuit's. He was a flawed individual - he once beat one of his wives so badly she required a week's stay in a hospital - and many of the reasons he wasn't embraced then still hold true today.
But it is a story worth watching, that of a champion who has never truly gotten his due and been misrepresented by history.
"He was," Burns said, "a full-blown American hero we need to know about."