Jack Johnson was facing an angry mob. During the turbulent years when he was the first black man to hold the heavyweight boxing championship, Johnson routinely fought surrounded by menacing white crowds. But on that June night in 1936, Johnson wasn't champion, and the mob wasn't white. Hours earlier, Joe Louis had been beaten by Germany's Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in New York City, sending many black Americans into shock. As Harlem erupted in frustration and rage, Johnson roamed the neighborhood flaunting the money he had won betting against Louis. Now people wanted Jack Johnson's blood.
"That Joe has a lot to learn," Johnson had said. Louis, he claimed, was a "mechanical fighter" who didn't know how to think in the ring, a "clumsy greenhorn" with an "off-balance stance." And Johnson had continually pointed out the flaw that had proved to be Louis's undoing. " Louis holds his left too low," Johnson had warned before the Schmeling fight, "and the first fellow who makes him step back and then throws a right at his chin will knock him out."
That was exactly the tactic that Schmeling used to send Louis to the canvas three times. Although the German had detected Louis's vulnerability on his own, Johnson viewed the victory as vindication of his own boxing genius. Harlemites, already stung by Louis's defeat, were infuriated by Johnson's bragging. It didn't take long for a mob to form, with Johnson as its target. Mercifully, the police intervened and rescued Johnson.
For Jack Johnson, that night marked the bottom of a long fall. Fifteen years earlier—though broke, his championship gone, and recently released from prison, where he had been sent on a trumped-up charge for violating the Mann Act, a law prohibiting interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes—he was still a hero to the thousands who turned out to greet him upon his arrival home in Harlem. While much of America wanted to forget the racial controversies of his championship reign (from 1908, when he stopped Tommy Burns, to 1915, when he was knocked out by Jess Willard), Harlem continued to bestow on Johnson an unparalleled fame. Unparalleled, that is, until the rise of Detroit's Louis.
Johnson and Louis should have been natural allies. In his quest to become the second black to hold the heavyweight championship, Louis faced the same racism that Johnson had confronted a quarter century earlier. In their common difficulty, however, they found no common ground. Instead, they became antagonists, and their rift ultimately destroyed Johnson as a hero to his people.
The antagonism between Johnson and Louis ran especially deep; by many accounts its origin was an incident in a Philadelphia gym in 1908. At the time Johnson was neither a hero nor the heavyweight champion. Louis, for that matter, wasn't even born. Yet what happened in that gym that day would contribute to the bad blood between them.
Johnson, hungry for a workout, could find no one willing to spar with him except for a fellow named Jack' Blackburn. Blackburn, however, was a lightweight. Johnson agreed to take him on, but it was obvious he disdained the lighter fighter. As they sparred, Blackburn became increasingly irritated by Johnson's nonchalant manner, so he bloodied the bigger man's nose. Johnson was furious. He threw everything he had, but the wily lightweight dodged his rushes and survived the sparring session still standing. Later, Blackburn loved to tell of how he had once embarrassed the future heavyweight champion. Johnson never forgave Blackburn for showing him up.
Blackburn's life was soon to take an unhappy turn. Convicted of stabbing a man in a barroom fight, he was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter. As his release date approached, friends in the boxing community tried to organize a benefit to help him back on his feet. When he was asked to participate, Johnson replied, "Let the son of a bitch stay in jail."
By the time Blackburn did gain his freedom, Johnson was a fugitive in Europe, temporarily escaping the jail term he had incurred for his alleged Mann Act transgression, and the backlash against the champion had caused boxing's color line, previously a phenomenon within the heavyweight division, to be extended for a time to all divisions. Blackburn's last few years as a topflight fighter coincided with this backlash, and his hopes for a lightweight championship were crushed. It is not surprising that he carried a lasting bitterness toward Johnson.
That bitterness was evident nearly 20 years later when two numbers men from Detroit, John Roxborough and Julian Black, asked Blackburn to train Golden Gloves champion Joe Louis for his first professional fight. Blackburn was skeptical about handling a black heavyweight and had this advice for his new student: "You know, boy," he told Louis, according to Louis's 1978 autobiography,
Joe Louis: My Life, "the heavyweight division for a Negro is hardly likely.... If you really ain't gonna be another Jack Johnson, you got some hope. White man hasn't forgotten that fool nigger with his white women, acting like he owned the world."