When White Moral Values Ran Riot

World champion Jack Johnson threatened America’s racist notions and won nonetheless

George W. Bush, say hello to Seaborn Roddenberry.

Who’s he?

Seaborn Roddenberry was a Georgia congressman who, in 1912, while white America was still reeling over Jack Johnson’s 1910 Reno, Nevada, knockout of great white hope Jim Jeffries, proposed a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriages in these United States.

Do we have to spell out the parallel? Surely not.

What provoked Roddenberry was Jack Johnson’s association with, and preference for, good-looking white women, prostitutes or otherwise, several of whom the fur-coat-wearing, racing-car-driving, Napoleon-worshipping, unabashedly gold-toothed prizefighter—and musician, vaudevillian and voracious reader of anything in print—did indeed marry.

Roddenberry’s amendment is but one of scores of oddments, ephemera, peripherals that suddenly pop up throughout the 214 fascinating minutes of the new Ken Burns documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.”

Another is a glimpse of Jack Johnson toying in the ring with a bum-of-the-month named Victor McLaglen, who 25 years later would attain cine-immortality in the title role of John Ford’s “The Informer.”

And another: In the rioting and lynching all over the U.S. that followed that 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight—during which combat ringsiders had implored the referee, “Don’t let the nigger knock him out!”—a ten-year-old boy had to run for his life on Canal Street in New Orleans. His name was Louis Armstrong.

“I love these little intersections of history,” said the Ken Burns whose movie gifts have unwrapped for us, over the years, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Congress, the Civil War, radio, baseball, the suffragettes, the West, jazz, and more plus particular lives of such as Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Lindbergh. Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain and, now, John Arthur “Jack” Johnson.

“If you make a film about what you already know,” Burns said, “you’re on an expressway from point A to point B. But with a film like this, you’re off on a bunch of side roads.”

Friday and Saturday evenings, November 12 and 13, Burns will introduce clips from “Unforgivable Blackness” during the Jack Johnson Festival at Jazz in Lincoln Center’s new Rose Theater on Columbus Circle. The Wynton Marsalis Septet will play portions of Marsalis’ “Unforgivable Blackness” score.

On Monday, January 17, and Tuesday, January 18, the two-part documentary—which premiered at the recent New York Film Festival—airs in full on PBS.

Burns had at one time or another seen “The Great White Hope,” the 1970 movie (from the Howard Sackler play) starring James Earl Jones as Jack Johnson, and when David Schaye, a co-producer on the baseball series, brought Burns a 25-page abstract toward a documentary about the first black heavyweight champion of the world, “I just lit up,” Burns said. “It pushed every button in me.”

Though Roddenberry’s amendment went nowhere, the bluenoses and racists got Jack Johnson in the end for violation of the Mann Act, transporting a woman over a state line for purposes of “debauchery.”

“My crime,” Johnson said, “was beating Jim Jeffries.”

Johnson fled to Montreal, then to England, then to Mexico, but after seven years of exile—and his 1915 loss to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba—he returned home, was clapped in handcuffs and packed off to a year in Leavenworth.

Jess Willard, the Potawotamie Giant, a six-foot-six Kansas ranch hand who in fact hated fighting though he’d once killed a man, was the great white hope incarnate.

“If they make white hopes any bigger, I’ll have to get stilts,” wisecracked Johnson.

He was 37, Willard was 27. The fight, in 105-degree heat, went 25 (of a projected 45) rounds, in a ring surrounded by guards carrying rifles and machetes. It ended with Johnson on his back, under the Havana sun, one arm over his eyes.

“Will you please see my wife gets out of here,” he said to his handlers.

White America erupted in joy. Later there were all sorts of suppositions that Johnson, seeking a reprieve, had thrown the fight.

“If Johnson throwed it,” said Willard, “I wish he’d throwed it sooner.”

It was all downhill from there until Johnson’s death in 1946, when the second black heavyweight champion of the world was Joseph Louis Barrow of Detroit, a quiet man who couldn’t have been more different in every respect.

What was truly bad for Johnson was when, as the film puts it, “the trouble came from both sides of the line,” with the good, churchgoing, black, middle class turning against him. “They were terrified just like white folk,” said James Earl Jones. They, too, had daughters to worry about. the “moral” majority reigned.

“Unforgivable Blackness” takes its title from intransigent philosopher/separatist W.E.B. Dubois in his disagreement with, yet defense of, Johnson’s society-defying taste for white women—”…so it all comes down to unforgivable blackness.”

Parallels, parallels. Journalist Jack Newfield, one of a dozen meritorious talking heads in the documentary, tells how, in 1968, when Cassius Clay had been convicted of draft evasion—”them Vietcongs never did nothing to me”—and couldn’t get a passport, Newfield took him to see “The Great White Hope” on Broadway.

Backstage after the show to meet James Earl Jones, the soon-to-be Muhammad Ali said to the actor, “If you take out the women and the religion, that’s my story.”

Jones told Ken Burns and the camera: “I don’t see [Jack Johnson’s] life as a tragedy. America was a tragedy.”

The film doesn’t say so, but to me — no boxing expert, not even a fan any more — Ali’s famous float-like-a-butterfly, “rope-a-dope” technique directly descends from the even more graceful Johnson. “He punch from here up” is how a latter-day champion, Jose Torres, pointing to his own head, summarizes the Johnson style.

“Class” is a word much used in boxing, and there is class all over this documentary, from James Earl Jones just being himself to Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Jack Johnson to Keith David as narrator to grizzled Bert Sugar filling in a few of the historical fine points to columnist Stanley Crouch calling Johnson’s 1910 victory over Jeffries—the upset that changed everything—”boxing’s version of the Battle of Gettysburg.”

The opposite of class is what that Gettysburg ignited, or released, in the city rooms and editorial chambers of some of this nation’s most august, most respectable newspapers, among them The New York Times. “A Word to the Black Man” was the nakedly menacing headline (delivered in the chilling voice of Billy Bob Thornton) over one warning about Johnson’s “venture into miscegenation.”

Behave or else, know what we mean?

For Jack Johnson, as for Miles Davis, who saw something of Johnson in himself and created a suite of music to prove it, there was, this film tells us, “no better way to act than as if prejudice did not exist.” But it did. And, in more than one way, still does.

“We are founded,” said Ken Burns to this moviegoer the other day, “on the monumental hypocrisy that all men are created equal. I don’t think you can scratch American history without bumping into racism. This film is all about a man saying: ‘I’m gonna live my life as the Constitution says I can.’”

The Constitution unamended.

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