CMXsports' Bert Sugar on The Pardon of Jack Johnson

20.07.04 - BERT RANDOLPH SUGAR'S latest weekly column --"Sugar 'N Spice" -- can be read EXCLUSIVELY at Sugar, the world-famous boxing historian and sports bon vivant, is the Senior Boxing Analyst at-large for CMXsports, where he is also part of the new Latin boxing broadcast series, "CMX Boxeo de Campeones," which made its debut, May 28.

Presented by CMXsports and promoted by Guilty Boxing, "CMX Boxeo de Campeones" allows boxing fans from around the world to catch all the action via a live internet stream, and access the replay, at for a monthly subscription fee of just $4.95. The series airs Friday nights, beginning at 11 P.M. ET / 8 P.M. PT. Subscribers can also access archived fight footage and get behind-the-scenes interviews, previews and articles. The broadcasts are available in English and Spanish. This Friday night's show features the 2004 debut of five-time world featherweight champion MANUEL MEDINA taking on Leonardo Resendiz for the vacant NABA super featherweight title, LIVE from the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage, CA

The Runyonesque Sugar, a former editor of The Ring, and Boxing Illustrated magazines and the author of over 50 sports books, lends his world-renowned knowledge and razor-sharp wit to his weekly column which will be dedicated to the hot topics facing boxing today, as well as contrasting and comparing today's boxing scene to the historic eras of the past. This week, Bert plants his tongue firmly in cheek with his look on Jack Johnson's Pardon.

“Beg Pardon, But The Quality of Justice is Strained”

By Bert Randolph Sugar, Sr. Boxing Analyst at-large for CMXsports

History is a sometimes thing. Sometimes it embraces reality: other times, it is a mere distillation of rumor. And sometimes it even indulges in jokes.

Throughout the long annals of history-cum-story telling, we have been treated, if that’s the right word, to fascinating stories that simply are not true. For no matter what biographers assure us, no she-wolf ever wet-nursed Romulus and Remus, little George Washington hewed down no cherry tree and William Tell wasted nary an arrow shooting an apple off his kid’s bean. In short, as someone once said, history is a group of lies we’ve agreed upon.

Now, pull up a seat, dear readers, whilst I tell you the tale of Jack Johnson and put a lie to the slander history has attached to his name.

To assess Jack Johnson’s place in history is as difficult as attempting to categorize Shakespeare’s Othello merely as a Moor. And as misleading. For the rise and fall of Jack Johnson was shaped as much by his being black as by America’s reaction to it, and, in many ways, his was as much a preordained tragedy as that of Othello.

John Arthur Johnson, better known as “Li’l Artha,” initially denied a chance to sink his roots into big-time boxing, instead honed his skills against other blacks on the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit,” and gained a measure of celebrity by beating the likes of Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette and Sam McVey. Johnson then set out to defy one of boxing’s ineluctable verities—that no black man could ever become heavyweight champion of the world. And he began to menace the white heavyweights by taking on, and quickly dispatching, Bob Fitzsimmons and Fireman Jim Flynn. All that remained was the then-champion, Tommy Burns.

But Burns chose to remain elusive and, tucking his heavyweight belt under his arm, took to defending his title in faraway England and Australia.

However, Johnson was inevitability persistent. And, finally, the man the press had dubbed “The Playful Ethiopian” tracked down Burns to Sydney, Australia, and, there, by virtue of pleading and even more wheeling and dealing, got his long-awaiting opportunity.

On that day, the day after Christmas, 1908--aptly called “Boxing Day” in Australia--a large black cat toyed with a small white mouse in a fight that ringside observer and writer Jack London called “No fight,” as Johnson fought with an assurance that bordered on effrontery and displayed a contempt for both opponent and fans as he played with Burns and the audience like a band leader honing his sections. Finally, with Burns tottering around the ring helpless and unable to defend himself, the Sydney constabulary took things into their own hands and jumped into the ring, mercifully stopping the fight in the 14th round.

Johnson’s victory unleashed a damned-up wall of white hatred. The white man’s burden had become his master and the so-called inferior race was superior to the white man in this, the most supreme of all contests between two men. Now the man who represented the strongest, most powerful and most visible figure in the world was black.

Faced with this shocking, almost indigestible challenge to Anglo-Saxon pride, writers like Jack London called for someone, anyone, to come forward to “remove that smile from Johnson’s face,” and avenge the defiling of the white Desdemona by this black Othello. A crusade, thus called for lack of a better name, the finding of a “White Hope,” was mounted to put the black intruder in their midst back in his place.

But Johnson, whose natural ability was rivaled only by his contempt for society, paid no heed to the seismic quake his win had wrought and instead thumbed his nose at everything society held sacred. A subtle spirit defiant, he lived the life of fast women, fast cars and sloe gin and flaunted every excess to excess. Indeed, it was his high style of living, the flaunting of his blackness and, finally, his opening of a nightclub in Chicago--the free-wheeling Café de Champion, which served all comers and none of society’s mores--which brought, like decaying fish, the redolent stench of scandal to the overly-sensitive nostrils of the moral reformers.

It was at this point in time in America’s social history that the reform movement was on the march, its self-appointed pillars of society screaming in their fancied piety for the abolition of anything and everything that affronted them--from drinking to wagering to dancing and even to women riding bicycles. Its little recreations even included the called-for banning of the painting September Morn, branding it as immoral, that innocuous work which pictures a half-clothed nymph atop a rock and which, years later, would come to adorn the label of White Rock beverages.

Casting their “all-trespassers-will-be-prosecuted” eye everywhere, these hyperventilating moral crusaders now targeted Jack Johnson. And determined to do what no “White Hope” could: Remove this charge upon their honor and return the heavyweight crown to the Caucasian race.

After Johnson had reduced two sacrificial “White Hopes” (a.k.a. Stanley Ketchel and Jim Jeffries) into plowshares, the moralists, knowing no white man could return this intruder to his place, instead, turned to the federal government to “get him.” And they used as their instrument the recently-passed Mann Act, better known as “The White Slavery Act,” enacted in 1910 to prohibit the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes.

Casting about for a likely prospect to testify against Johnson, the Feds first selected Johnson’s future wife, Lucille Cameron, then his girlfriend. But when she married him, they reached out, and with a grasp rivaling that of a hungry boarding house roomer, to find Belle Schreiber, a self-acknowledged prostitute whom Johnson had taken with him to California for companionship while training for Ketchel. Based upon her testimony, a jury deliberated less than two hours before rendering a decision which found Johnson guilty of transporting the unfair Belle across state lines for the stated purposes of “prostitution, debauchery, committing a crime against nature, and unlawful sexual intercourse.” And despite her admission that she had gone willing, the heavyweight champion was sentenced to one year and one day in Joliet prison and a fine of $1,000.

Released to settle his affairs, Johnson jumped bail. Vowing never to return to the United States, the fugitive from the law of averages now became a fugitive from the law. During his less-than-grand tour of Europe, Johnson soon found himself out of money, out of contact and out of sorts. The once proud Johnson yielded to an “offer” to fight in Havana against the current White Hope, Jess Willard, in exchange for $35,000 and a promised pardon. However, at the advanced age of 37 and under a blistering Havana sun, Johnson succumbed to Willard in the 26th round and returned to the States to serve time in Leavenworth prison.

Now, almost a century later, a committee -- consisting of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns; Senator John McCain; actor Samuel L. Jackson; boxers Sugar Ray Leonard, Bernard Hopkins and Vernon Forrest; and a host of others (here, honesty dictates I inform you that I am one of those “others”) -- have introduced a petition seeking a posthumous presidential pardon for Jack Johnson, believing that history’s flickering lamp must be rekindled to rewrite its everlasting judgment for this great champion.

One of the last times Jack Johnson’s name appeared in the papers was back in June of 1946 when he lost control of his roadster near Raleigh, N.C., struck a telephone pole and died of injuries suffered in the collision. In one of sportswriting’s immortal lines, John Lardner described it thusly: “Jack Johnson died crossing the white line for the last time.” It is now time to eradicate that white line and correct an historical error so monstrous it fails to find any defenders or believers.

Bert Randolph Sugar, CMXsports' Senior Boxing Analyst At-Large, called “The Guru of Boxing,” has a new book: Bert Sugar On Boxing, (or “The Best of Bert Sugar, The Worst of Bert Sugar, What the Hell’s the Difference?”), published by The Lyon Press and currently available at Border’s, Barnes & Noble and

Article posted on 20.07.2004

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