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June 22, 1959
As fugitive, loser, prisoner and failure, Jack Johnson Kept his dream of glory intact
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June 22, 1959

Jack And The Game

As fugitive, loser, prisoner and failure, Jack Johnson Kept his dream of glory intact

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If Johnson failed to make a fortune in his later years it was not for lack of trying. He attempted to promote fights, to represent a Canadian brewery, to sell stocks and bonds and to produce Othello with himself in the title role. He appeared as master of ceremonies in a Los Angeles nightclub which he operated for a short time. He accepted a few days' work on the Warner Brothers lot, hoping for a break in pictures. At this time the highly respected swindler and playwright, Wilson Mizner, who had a great regard for Johnson, was under contract at Warners as an idea man. When he heard that his old friend was on the premises, Mizner left the thronelike chair in which he slept most of the day and hurried out to embrace Johnson and tell the movie moguls that here was no bit player but a person of importance and distinction. As a result everyone was polite; but no continuing work was offered. The steadiest employment Johnson found in the closing years of his life was at Hubert's Museum, the famous collection of educated fleas, fortune-telling machines, circus freaks and sideshows, which is still in business on West 42nd Street in New York.

Johnson also made appearances as a fighter long after the age when boxers usually are retired. He was 48 when he beat Pat Lester in the bull ring at Nogales, Mexico in 15 rounds. Lester was a strong young heavyweight who had never been defeated and was thought to be a contender for the championship then held by Jack Dempsey. The wire services reported Johnson in his best form, picking off punches as a shortstop catches a bounding ball and joking with friends from the 25th (Negro) U.S. Infantry, whose camp was just across the border and who made a killing with their bets. Two years later Johnson fought his last fight involving a decision, losing to Bill Hartwell in Kansas City. He continued to appear in exhibition bouts until 1945.

Sometimes during these years Johnson would be called to court, but no longer for assault and battery. The legal disputes were usually with landlords or had to do with small claims by agents and promoters. A typical proceeding involved an entrepreneur named Morris Botwen, who said $360.98 was due him in a deal to make and sell a preparation called Old Champ Liniment. Johnson explained to the judge, "I figured out the formula years ago. I have given it away to friends for years, and they all say it will cure toothaches, headaches or any other kind of ache. I just refused to make personal appearances for Botwen because I didn't think the stuff he was making was the same as my product." But a sideshow performer and peddler of nostrums could not afford real trouble with anyone, and Johnson's manner and appearance grew more and more ingratiating as the years went by. He began to look rather like an old-fashioned southern butler, except that he liked to wear bankerish double-breasted coats, set off by a beret, spats and the traditional showman's cane.

At the Chicago World's Fair in 1934 Johnson presided at a booth, ringing the changes on his time-tried spiel and impressing Gilmer Black, the Chicago architect and sportsman, as extremely affable and most remarkably light on his feet. During this engagement he joined Sally Rand and Samuel Insull in autographing a drum and appeared in an "exhibition boxing bout" with the veteran heavyweight Sailor Tom Sharkey. Sharkey rushed at his opponent with serious intent, but Johnson easily held him off or pinioned his arms, flashing a gold-mouthed smile at the spectators and reproving Sharkey. "What you aim to do to me, Tom? What you tryin' to do?"

Advancing years, precarious employment and near poverty did not dull Johnson's zest for life nor prevent him from considering himself to be a citizen with the privilege of speaking out in political debate. Before the Universal Negro Improvement Association, in Detroit, Johnson gave voice to his opinion on a presidential candidate: " Franklin D. Roosevelt is champion now and wearing the belt. Abraham Lincoln was a good fighter in his prime, but he can't help us now. Always string along with the champion." Though his man was elected, no rewards were conferred on Johnson, and two years later he was glad to accept the role of a captured Ethiopian general in a New York Hippodrome Production of Aida. He made a splendid appearance in his leopard skins, but the pay was mostly in publicity. During rehearsals Johnson said to a reporter, "They needed a big strong fellow, and black—and that was me. I am to be the head general of Ethiopia, dressed up like Selassie with robes and all, and they take me up to Memphis—not Memphis, Tenn., but in the old country—and I am a prisoner. Boy, I mean to struggle plenty."

"Do they put you in chains?" he was asked.

"They are supposed to and they'll try to, but I'll put up a good battle," Johnson replied. "If they can get chains on me, okay and good, but I got to show up well. I can't be a ninny!" He then shifted the conversation and remarked that the reason he beat Jeffries was because he was a Republican. " Roosevelt! Roosevelt!" Johnson cried. "He has done more for the black race than Lincoln!"

In this kind of shrewd clowning Johnson gave a perfect demonstration of the surface personality he had developed in his mature years. But he probably showed how he really felt only when behind the wheel of an automobile. It required no psychiatrist to see the anger and arrogance expressed in the dangerous speeds at which his big cars roared over the roads. The extraordinary quickness of Johnson's reflexes—plus great good luck—had always saved him and others from serious injury. But as he approached the age of 70, those marvelously fast reactions began to slow down. And though he did not admit it, his hearing and memory also began to be impaired.

That was the situation on June 10, 1946, when Johnson crossed the border of North Carolina, heading for New York at the wheel of his 1939 Lincoln Zephyr. He was returning from an engagement with a small Texas circus, and traveling fast. Beside him sat a man named Fred L. Scott, whom he had employed to go along for company and to spell him in driving. Around 3:30 p.m. they approached the outskirts of Franklin-ton, where U.S. 1 swings in a gentle curve. A truck rose into view coming the other way. Johnson lost control of the car and it went off the shoulder to the right. He pulled back heading straight for the truck and wrenched the wheel. The Zephyr yawed across the concrete, this time crashing into a power pole. Scott was thrown clear and escaped with minor injuries. The driver's side of the car was crumpled and Johnson was unconscious. They got him to St. Agnes' Hospital in Raleigh in less than an hour, and he died from internal injuries at 6:10 p.m. The younger people on the staff did not know who their emergency patient was, but an old doctor looked down on the broad black unscarred face and exclaimed: "That's Jack Johnson."

NEXT day instructions came to ship Johnson's body to Chicago, and there, at undertaking rooms on South Michigan Avenue, great crowds waited patiently throughout June 13 for a chance to march past the open casket, while a police detail stood by. On June 14 thousands of Negroes and many white persons stood in the streets outside the big, high-domed Pilgrim Baptist Church, with a corps of Red Cross workers on hand to calm the hysterical. In the auditorium the Rev. Junius Caesar Austin Sr. rose to address 2,500 mourners from a flower-banked pulpit.

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