Jack Johnson was one the biggest anomalies the sports world had ever seen in the early 20th century. Not only because of his reign as heavyweight champion from 1908 until 1915, but because of his personality both in and outside of the ring. He was “brash, taunted his opponents, dated white women and openly enjoyed the luxuries of his wealth” (Eligon and Thorp). Johnson comported himself this way in a time where a majority of the black population faced frequent, violence, discrimination and lynching during the height of the Jim Crow era. Perhaps it was his cocky disposition that infatuated the media across racial lines even long after his death in a time where blacks were expected “know their place” in society.
Boxing during the early 1900s was incomparable in terms of the amount of people it captivated and the influence it had on overall society. Even today, with the popularity of the NFL and recent traction of the NBA pales in comparison to what boxing meant to America in the early part of the 20th century. Boxing’s positioning in American society put Johnson, inseparable from his race when covered by journalists, in a unique position of power among both whites and blacks while he held the heavyweight championship for seven years (Eligon and Thorp). According to American essayist Dr. Gerald Early and PBS. Org “Not even the most famous race leaders of the day, Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and W. E. B. Du Bois, founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and editor of that organization’s magazine, The Crisis, could claim anywhere near the attention Johnson received” (Early). Attention in the sports world translated to power and thus social influence.
It wasn’t just the popularity of the boxing that kept Johnson at the top of the sports world. His defiance of the unspoken rules regarding blacks during the Jim Crow era and blatant disregard for the social hierarchy of the time period, made Johnson, much like any modern-day pop culture icon, the subject of constant media attention. One could make the argument that popular culture as we know it today was very much in its infancy in the early 20th century. Sports (and more specifically boxing), which play a large role in popular culture today, were just beginning to flex their influential muscle in shaping society. Movies, films, and music production were just beginning to become more widespread and eventually begin to impact society. Johnson, in a time where all the aspects that shape popular culture were beginning to gain traction, was the first pop culture celebrity thrust to the forefront of American society. Every part of Johnson’s life, including his sex life, was newsworthy to both colored and white newsrooms. Johnson flaunted his wealth, his automobiles, and his women (Early).
Johnson polarizing nature ensured news coverage would follow. Many whites were perturbed by the idea of the time period’s most iconic white women were “romantically linked” with Johnson (Black History in America). The heavyweight boxer “was a public menace for many, a public hero for some, admired and demonized, feared, misunderstood, and ridiculed (Early). What made Johnson’s popularity even more unique is that he wasn’t the first black man or former slave, to find a temporary career in boxing. Joe Walcott was welterweight champion from 1901 to 1904 and Joe Gans was lightweight champion from 1902 to 1904. In addition, former slaves Bill Richmond and Tom Molyneaux found success boxing in England during the late 18th and early 19th century (Early).
It’s difficult to compare Johnson to any one modern day pop culture icon within sports primarily because of his rise to fame during the height of one of the most difficult times in U.S. history for African Americans. Nobody past or present in sports carried themselves quite like Johnson. His bold disobedience to the existing racial hierarchy and personal transgressions often garnered more attention than his accomplishments within the ring (Carrie Teresa). His disposition and “wrongdoings” according to white society in the early 20th century helped to maintain his popularity and kept the press, both colored and white covering his every move, no matter if it was an accomplishment in boxing or an intimate personal affair.
Despite extensive coverage of his external affairs, white newspapers did everything they could to try and disparage Johnson’s victories over many opponents. After Johnson’s victory over the former heavyweight champion James J. Jefferies, the New York Times claimed Jeffries had been drugged leading up to fight (Eligon and Thorp). These attempts to belittle Johnson’s accomplishments in the ring could not change his defiance in a society where blacks were subordinate and despised. Johnson became a symbol. He used his societal status to empower African Americans across the nation and captivated the media in the process with his acts that conflicted with the norms of the time period. Johnson’s influence extended far beyond any other athlete during the early 20th century. He was America’s first pop culture icon.