In this vivid biography Geoffrey C. Ward brings back to life the most celebrated — and the most reviled — African American of his age.
Jack Johnson battled his way out of obscurity and poverty in the Jim Crow South to win the title of heavyweight champion of the world. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live as if color did not exist. While most blacks struggled simply to exist, he reveled in his riches and his fame, sleeping with whomever he pleased, to the consternation and anger of much of white America. Because he did so the federal government set out to destroy him, and he was forced to endure prison and seven years of exile. This definitive biography portrays Jack Johnson as he really was--a battler against the bigotry of his era and the embodiment of American individualism.
Johnson (1878 1946), boxing's first black heavyweight champion, was a lightning rod for controversy in early 20th-century America. Even many of his fellow African-Americans resented his unapologetic dominance of the ring and steady succession of white girlfriends and wives, viewing his behavior as a setback to race relations. Ward (A First-Class Temperament) depicts the fear and resentment Johnson spurred in white Americans in voluminous detail that may startle modern readers in its frankness. Contemporary journalists regularly referred to Johnson as a "nigger" and openly advocated his pummeling at white hands, though ample quotations from supporters in the Negro press balance the perspective. Ward first documents the obstacles the boxing world threw in Johnson's path (including prolonged refusals by top white boxers to fight against him), and then probes the government's prosecution of the champ under the Mann Act (which banned the interstate transport of females for "immoral purposes") for taking his girlfriends across state lines. Ward brings his award-winning biographical skills to this sympathetic portrayal, which practically bursts with his research at times almost every page has its own footnote. Though the narrative drags slightly in Johnson's declining years, the champion's stubborn, uncompromising personality never lets up. Even readers who don't consider this a knockout will concede Ward a victory on points. Photos.