The Original War Of the Races

By Tom Donelson, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: July 3, 2010

IOWA CITY (BASN) — On July 4th, 1910, a momentous fight took place between Jim Jefferies and Jack Johnson.

This was the first fight of the century as an African-American boxing champion (Johnson) fought the great White Hope in Jefferies.

Two years earlier, Johnson humiliated Tommy Burns over 14 rounds in Australia. Throughout the bout, Johnson taunted his opponent while connecting on nasty punches toward his outclassed opponent.

As Johnson was preparing to finish off Burns, the cameraman simply quit filming so no one would see a Black man stop a white man. Johnson was not a quiet man when it came to exploiting the championship.

When he was not busy knocking out white fighters, he was dating white women. Johnson didn’t just beat his opponents, he humiliated them by letting them know he was the superior fighter.

Jefferies was long since retired when he was approached to uphold the honor of the white race. It was six years since he fought and was nearly 100 pounds overweight when he began training for the bout.

At his peak, Jefferies was a big fighter for his eras and he was great athlete to go with his power as he could run a 10-second 100-yard dash.

While Jefferies never fought any African-American fighters while defending his championship, author and boxing historian James Carney made the case that many of the better African American fighters just as Sam Langford were at the beginning of their career and certainly not ready for Jefferies.

Johnson wanted his shot at Jefferies but in 1904, Jefferies didn’t care to fight any more and whether it was because of drawing the color line or he simply didn’t want to fight one tougher opponent at the end of his career; who knows.

Some like Monte Cox viewed this as Jefferies drawing the color line, but others like Carney figure that just Jefferies simply didn’t care to fight any more. Carney added in his book that in 1904, Johnson’s career produced nothing that would force Jefferies or cause him to lose sleep.

Jefferies may have drawn the color line as a champion, but he did fight Peter Jackson before becoming champion. However, he defeated an old Jackson, who was coming back after a six year absence.

Jefferies would face Johnson after a similar layoff.

Tommy Burns defeated Marvin Hart for the title in the post Jefferies era and throughout 1907, he defended his title a dozen time. A small fighter, Burns was a better fighter than many modern days boxing historian gave him credit for and when Johnson beat him, he defeated the best white fighter of his day.

This was the premier sporting event of 1910 as a new stadium was built to house the fans traveling to Reno. Jefferies, despite the layoff, was the favorite and many whites were anxious to see the great Jefferies shut the talkative Johnson up.

For many whites, Johnson was that uppity black who had to put in his place.

Johnson was one of those more interesting figures for he never truly considered him a crusader for his race but wanted to live his life his own way. He was an athlete born a century too late but unlike Joe Louis years later; he was not looking to be a role model for his race.

He wanted to simply live his life his way and while many whites view is life as giving White America the middle finger, he viewed it as simply living the America dream.

White Jefferies got himself in great shape; it was an illusion for Jefferies was merely a shadow of himself. After the first round, it was obvious that Jefferies no longer had the skills to catch the faster Johnson.

Throughout the bout, he simply became a punching bag for Johnson’s quick combinations. In the 15th round, Johnson knocked the former champion down three times before the fight stopped.

This round simply ended a humiliating defeat for Jefferies as throughout the bout, Johnson would taunt his opponent. Johnson asked his beaten opponent, “Is that all you got, Mr. Jefferies?”

The sight of seeing the great Jefferies being defeated easily stunned much of White America. There were riots in about 50 cities and 23 African-Americans were killed along with two whites.

As for Johnson, the search for the great White Hope began and would culminate when Jesse Willard would finally defeated and aged Johnson in Havana in 1915.

For next 22 years, African-Americans were kept from competing for the title. (In the 1920′s, African-American Harry Willis nearly got to fight Jack Dempsey but a key lost and back door politics kept the fight from happening.)

The justice system targeted Johnson as they attempted to use the Mann Act, for transporting women across state line for immoral purposes. His girlfriend at the time, Lucille Cameron, was a prostitute and thus he was “guilty of transporting her for immoral purposes”

But Ms. Cameron refused to cooperate and later married Johnson. (Later another prostitute that Johnson frequented testified against him. As for Cameron, she would later marry Johnson.)

Eventually, Johnson would be arrested for violating the Mann Act and serve on year but that will be after he lost the championship. For Johnson, most know him for his victory over Jefferies but his most impressive wins as a champion was his defeat of Burns.

His toughest opponents may have been the black opponents just as Sam Langford before he became champion but he only fought one black, Johnson and avoided most of the better African-American fighters.

As for Jefferies, he would be forever remember for his lost to Johnson but many boxing historians debate what would have happen if Jefferies fought Johnson at his peak, would the results be different?

It is not a sure thing that a peak Johnson would have beaten a peak Jefferies but we will never know. Jefferies became a forgotten champion for many boxing fans, forever tainted by his loss. As for Johnson, his legend has grown and there have been movements to his conviction overturned posthumously.

This fight would be one of the few sporting events that transcended the sport and only two other fights would have similar impact, the second Louis-Schmeling and Ali-Frazier I.

During the Louis-Schmeling fight, it was written that America was colorblind for the two minutes that Louis clobbered Schmeling and Ali-Frazier represented every American fissure during the Vietnam War.

Johnson-Jefferies showed America at its ugliest where race was everything and much of White America had yet accepted their African-America citizens as their equal.