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President Obama: Jack Johnson Punched Back


In a recent monologue, Bill Maher said that the United States has two main political parties: one party on the center-right: the Democrats, and one party in a mental institution: the Republicans. Frankly, his comment insults those who receive care at psychiatric facilities; at least they are looking for help.

The Republicans, however, proudly soak in their own bile, every week dishing out a new dollop of reaction. Last week, their national embarrassment was the Republican Congresswoman from Topeka, Kansas, Lynn Jenkins. At a town meeting, Jenkins called for a "great white hope" to emerge from the Republican Party to defeat Barack Obama’s agenda. Let this sink in: in front of a small crowd of rabid supporters in Topeka, already in full froth about “death panels,” she called for a “great white hope.” Her examples of “great white hopes” were congressmen like Eric Cantor and Steve Ryan, both of whom are, among other things, white. Later, her spokesperson Mary Geiger may have made it worse by saying, "There may be some misunderstanding there when she talked about the great white hope. What she meant by it is they have a bright future. They’re bright lights within the party.” Yes, white is “bright” while Obama brings the “darkness.”

Team Obama, per their usual posture on the nuts of August, refused to stand up to this racist idiocy. His spokesperson Bill Burton said, “We obviously give Congressman Jenkins the benefit of the doubt." This has become the Obama administration m.o.: take a right hook to the face and just smile through your bloodied teeth.

Jenkins has since said she was “unaware of any negative connotation” and is sorry if anyone was offended. One thing is certain: if she did know the actual, unvarnished history of the phrase “great white hope,” Jenkins may have chosen her words carefully. "Great white hopes” tend to get knocked into next week.

The yearning for a “great white hope” emerged when African American boxing champion, Jack Johnson became the first heavyweight boxing champion with black skin in 1908. The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for a "a great white hope" (a phrase coined by author Jack London) to restore order to the boxing world—and the world in general. Former champion Jim Jeffries, the Eric Cantor of the boxing world, was coaxed out of retirement to challenge Johnson, saying, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro."

Johnson didn’t give Jeffries, the press, or anyone else the benefit of the doubt. In a July 4th, 1910, Philadelphia Inquirer story titled, "Johnson Believes He’s Jeff’s Master," he is quoted as saying,  "I honestly believe that in pugilism I am Jeffries’ master, and it is my purpose to demonstrate this in the most decisive way possible….  The tap of the gong will be music to me."
To call himself Jeffries’ master, when people born as slaves and masters still lived throughout the United States, was verbal TNT.

The fight itself was the ugliest public display this side of a Topeka town meeting. The ringside band played a song called, "All coons look alike to me," and the all-white crowd chanted "kill the nigger." But Johnson was faster, stronger and smarter than Jeffries. He knocked Jeffries out with ease. In an early incarnation of the information superhighway, young children working as "telegram runners" ran through urban environs after every round, shouting out the progress.

The failure of the "white hope" caused—it is no exaggeration to say—a full blown ideological crisis. "That Mr. Johnson should so lightly and carelessly punch the head of Mr. Jeffries," wrote the New York World, "must come as a shock to every devoted believer in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race."

After Johnson’s victory, there were riots around the country—in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking blacks, and blacks fighting back. This reaction to a boxing match was the most widespread racial uprising that the U.S. had ever seen—or ever would see—until the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Right-wing religious groups immediately organized to ban boxing. Congress actually passed a law banning boxing films.

But Johnson remained defiant.  For this mortal sin—and a variety of venal ones—he faced harassment and persecution for most of his life. He was forced into exile in 1913 on the trumped-up charge of transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes.
But Johnson, in the eyes of countless African Americans, was no devil. He was becoming folklore.

In the words of one spiritual:

Amaze an’ Grace, how sweet it sounds,
Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down.
Jim Jeffries jumped up an’ hit Jack on the chin,
An’ then Jack knocked him down again.
The Yankees hold the play,
The white man pulls the trigger;
But it make no difference what the white man say,
The world champion’s still a nigger.

The great W.E.B. DuBois wrote the following about Johnson in 1914: "Why then this thrill of national disgust?….It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness."

These words could be said about much of the "town hall right’s" opposition to Obama today.

If there are disagreements with any part of the Obama agenda, we should shout them from the rooftops.. But for far too many in the confederate confines of the Republican Party—including those in elected office—opposition to Obama begins with the very color of his skin. Perhaps President Obama – and Rep. Lynn Jenkins – should remember: Jack Johnson fought back.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

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