Jack Johnson was on the run 100 years ago

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Exactly 100 years ago this week, sport's highest-profile athlete was on the run, a fugitive from the law and facing prison.

But rather than accepting a stint in a jail cell, Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight boxing champion, smuggled himself out of the United States assisted by a traveling baseball team who disguised him in their uniform and headed for Canada, then Europe.

Tales of leading athletes falling foul of the authorities was nothing new even then and, as the events of this week show, remain an unfortunate reality.

Yet Johnson's run from the law was a flight from injustice, with the legal basis for his impending incarceration in June 1913 manifestly flawed and deeply rooted in racist malfeasance.

Phony laws and an even shakier interpretation of them led to Johnson being convicted of "transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes." Never mind that the crime he was accused of was aimed at combating trafficking prostitutes and had never before been used to apply to consenting adults, or that the woman in question, Lucille Cameron, was soon to be Johnson's wife.

The reality was that Johnson was targeted for daring to be black and successful in a time that didn't allow it and because his lifestyle – especially his very public fondness for white women – did not sit neatly with then-conventional stereotypes of the black man.

After years of smirking in the face of adversity, shrugging off racist taunts and overt police attention, while battering all comers in the ring to become the first black heavyweight champ in history, it was no longer time to fight, it was time for Jack Johnson to run.

His exile from the United States would last seven years.

Ken Burns, the extraordinary documentarian whose subjects are rich tapestries of American life, says he's spent his entire professional life trying to work out how this country ticks. "Inevitably," he says, you are drawn to the question of race, and I can't imagine a more glaring example than the story of Jack Johnson."

Of all of Burns' documentary subjects – from the Civil War to jazz to baseball – Jack Johnson grabbed his imagination as much as any. His two-part PBS film "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," first screened in 2005.

"Back then," Burns said in a telephone interview with Yahoo! Sports, "[the heavyweight title] was the symbol of prowess. The idea that an African-American could be the best physical person on earth was a difficult thing to swallow.

"You have a citizen who believes he should be able to rise as far as his talent can allow him," Burns added, "but is thwarted at every corner."

At his peak, no fighter could match Johnson, but sporting and social politics of the day conspired to deny him a shot at the heavyweight title until long after he was due. After several years recognized as the best "Colored Heavyweight" in the early part of the 20th century, Johnson chased then-champ Tommy Burns on his world tour, eventually persuading Burns to give him a shot at the title in Sydney, Australia, in December 1908.

Johnson was better, stronger and technically sharper, and inflicted a brutal beating upon Burns, with the result sparking outrage among the white community that the mantle of the world's toughest man had passed into the hands of a "Negro."

The search for a Great White Hope was immediately launched, with a public cry to see Johnson get his comeuppance fervently pursued. After a series of out-matched challengers were hastily dispatched, former champion Jim Jefferies was hustled out of retirement, despite needing to shed 100 pounds and carrying six years of ring rust.

On July 4, 1910, Johnson faced Jefferies over 15 rounds in Reno, Nev., in a battle with more racial undertones than any before or since.

"If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors," declared the New York Times.

But Johnson did win, decisively so over 15 rounds, with the announcement of the result sparking scenes of jubilant celebration among the black communities across the country. The atmosphere soon darkened, with fighting between whites and blacks on the streets of several major cities; the Chicago Daily Tribune listed 11 deaths as a result of the violent outbreaks.

Johnson was now a wealthy man and was enjoying the trappings that came with it. He drove luxury vehicles at breakneck speed, decked himself out in bespoke clothing and hosted lavish parties.

Yet for all the extravagance, there were two things white society could not forgive him for: the retention of the heavyweight crown and his penchant for white women.

"Johnson lived a life outside traditional morals as well as outside traditional racial power structures," said Ken Burns. "He did whatever he wanted. This is not some ape. This is not some galoof that needs white assistance. This is an articulated, well-spoken man who does things his own way.

"He slept with who he wanted to, he drove as fast as he wanted, he did whatever he wanted. For a lot of people it was just too much."

Flush with money, confidence and a desire to exercise his constitutional freedoms, there was never any chance of Johnson conforming to the stereotypical ideal that blacks could be tolerated as long as they were smiling and acquiescent.

"Jack didn't toe any lines," actor James Earl Jones says in Burns' documentary. "I wouldn't say that is what got him into trouble. Society was in trouble. Jack was just being himself. He didn't present himself as a man of the people. He didn't play the game of 'yessir boss', cutting off his balls just to present himself as non-threatening."

By 1912 Johnson was considered threatening enough that he was arrested for violating the Mann Act, having "transported" Cameron to Atlantic City for a vacation. When Cameron refused to testify, the case fell apart. But political pressure to "get" Johnson was so strong that prosecutors persuaded an ex-girlfriend, Belle Schreiber, to testify against him on similar charges.

In June 1913, in a court ruled by future baseball commissioner K.M. Landis, an all-white jury found Johnson guilty, even though the acts he was accused of committing with Schreiber took place before the Mann Act was even implemented.

A year and a day in jail beckoned, but Johnson had other ideas. Temporarily freed pending an appeal, he fled north, then to Europe, where he embarked upon a series of exhibition bouts and saw his money dwindle as World War I raged.

He lost his title in 1915 against Kansas cowboy Jess Willard in a fight staged in the Cuban capital of Havana, where Johnson wilted in the 26th round of a fight scheduled for 45 against a younger, hungrier opponent.

Eventually, Johnson came back to America and served out his sentence, his life continuing to be dogged by the discrimination he suffered.

It ended that way too, with Johnson dying in a car accident in 1946, after furiously driving at dangerously high speed when he became enraged at being denied service in a restaurant.

In many ways his is a tragic tale and also a complex one. Johnson was far from being the most likable of men – brash, arrogant, promiscuous and reportedly violent toward his women.

Yet he was also a trailblazer, not because color lines were blurring, but because he simply refused to accept them. That approach and the strides it made toward equality is why the fight to pardon Johnson, a century after his conviction, goes on.

"It is disgraceful that this racist conviction has been permitted to stand and stain the legacy of Jack Johnson for the last 100 years," Senator John McCain said in an April press release. McCain, along with Senator Harry Reid and Congressman Peter King, have joined Burns in pushing for Johnson's "crime" to be erased from history. "I urge the President to right this historical wrong by granting Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon, for which there is ample historical precedent," added McCain, who along with King have been introducing legislation to pardon Johnson since 2004.

It is hard to see what could be standing in the way of a formal pardon, though without going into a minefield of legal intricacy, it is fair to note that the process of a posthumous presidential pardon is complex enough that only one has ever been issued in American history.

A century on from Johnson's struggle, this weekend's NBA draft will see dozens of African-American athletes earn the right to compete professionally. NFL training camps will continue with teams heavily populated by African-American players. Thankfully, times have moved on enough that such issues are scarcely given a second thought.

But a hundred years ago, America's version of equality was horrifically skewed. Like it or not, the story of Johnson and his treatment is a stain on American history. Which is why, even now, Jack Johnson's steadfast refusal to conform to the racist societal norms dictated to him remains significant.

"Johnson was a pioneer," Burns said, "mainly because he didn't give a damn whether he was a pioneer or not."

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