It could have been worse. Jack Johnson could have been lynched. In the what is called the Jim Crow period, over 2500 African-Americans were lynched and no fewer than 50 were lynched on an annual basis. Nor were these crimes limited to the old South. In 1908, just a half a mile from the home of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Virginia, two African-Americans were lynched and their property destroyed. As Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote in the Oxford History of the American People, “The common excuse for lynching is that it was restored to only for rape, or attempted rape, of white women. The statistics prove that sexual assaults were not even alleged in more than one case in five, and that many of those lynched for it were innocent or the alleged assault was imaginary.”
In Waco, Texas, cheering crowds of men, women and children attended one lynching. This crowd shouted as a Negro, convicted and sentenced to death for murder, was burned alive and his flesh carried away as a souvenir.
Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote, “The Negro’s daughters were free to all the lusty white lads of the neighborhood and nothing was done about it; but if a African-American leered at a white girl of notoriously low morals, he was liable to be lynched by a mob in defense of the alleged purity of Southern womanhood.”
The Mann Act was originally designed to stop prostitution but it broadened over the years to cover consensual sex acts, targeting sex with “minor women.” Johnson’s only real guilt was becoming the Heavyweight champion. His victory over Jeffries sparked race riots and the Texas Legislature banned films of his victories, because of the fear of even more violence. Johnson would die in a car crash on June 10, 1946 near Raleigh, North Carolina. As he was being buried, the Heavyweight championship was in the hands of another black fighter, Joe Louis. Joe Louis was one of America’s beloved sport figures, and was the first African- American fighter to be accepted by white sports fans. Johnson, on the other hand, was one of most feared black athletes for he refused to play by the rules of White America. While White America would use trumped up charges to force Johnson out of the country and conspire to take his title, Johnson never surrendered to White America.
Representative James Mann gave White promoters the legal tool to stop Johnson but they could never take away the fact that a Black man for seven years was the reigning champion and best fighter in the world.
After his championship days, Johnson was never allowed any chance to regain his championship and for many white Americans, he was man soon to be forgotten. His accomplishments could not be ignored but after his championship reigns, no African-Americans were allowed near the championship belt for over 20 years. History has judged Johnson and they found him to be a great champion. No amount of racism could change that.