The year was 1908 when boxer Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, became the first black heavy-weight champion of the world. His rise to success came when lynching was at its peak, when Jim Crow was law in much of the U.S., and when a black man should know “their place” when in the presence of whites.
But Johnson would never prescribe to being a second class citizen because of his blackness. He would drive expensive cars, wear fancy clothes, he would brutalize his white opponents in the ring, and what drove everyone crazy more than anything else: he dated white women during a moment in history when black men were being lynched every week just by the very thought of interracial sex.
At a time when every other sport was racially segregated, Johnson’s claim to the heavyweight title shocked a white world that viewed blacks as being athletically, as well as mentally, inferior. They went to extreme measures to avenge this, calling Jim Jeffries, “The White Hope”, out of retirement to reclaim the title–not just for him, but for the destiny of the white race. The New York Times wrote, “”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 neighbours.”
It was clear that the world was against Johnson, but the odds were in his favor, and that was all that mattered. After fifteen rounds, and knocking Jeffries out twice, Johnson held his title, as well as his dominance.
If they couldn’t defeat Johnson in the ring, then they would manipulate law to bring him down. Several years later, Johnson would be arrested and sentenced to 1 year imprisonment for traveling with a white women across state boarders for “immoral reasons,” under the Mann Act. An act designed to attack prostitution, but with such loose language, it could easily be used to attack interracial couples, and would set the tone for future miscegenation laws that would define black-white relations for the next half-century.
After the verdict by an all white jury, Johnson fled the country, continuing his reign as the World Heavy-Weight champion until his loss to Jess Willard in 1915. After the defeat, he returned to the U.S., where he served his jail sentence. His career was never the same, nor was his reputation. On June 10, 1946, with a tendency for reckless driving, Johnson died in a car crash. He was speeding away from a diner after being denied service because of his race. It was racism that made him such a driving force in the boxing world, but it was also racism that would eventually bring him down.
This last week, we saw how polarizing Richard Sherman’s post NFC championship game remarks were as he helped bring his team to the Super Bowl. What’s great is we saw immediately how people rushed to his aid. We’ve seen the racially coded language that puts African-American athletes on the margins. And we’ve seen Sherman be nothing but graceful and intelligent as he navigates through all the controversy.
Almost a complete century after Johnson reign, the legacy remains the same. It was athletes like Johnson who made the way and set an example for players like Sherman to stand up to racism. When you compare the history of sports to the history of racism, it’s impossible to not see how they both have such a close relationship to one another.
Reflecting upon the Baha’i writings–the religion to which I follow–it refers to people of African decent as “the pupil of the eye.” Baha’u’llah writes, “Thou art like unto the pupil of the eye that is dark in color but is a fount of light and the revealer of the contingent world.”
The Baha’i Faith has many progressive principles explicitly written out, and of those is the elimination of racism. The role of African-Americans, according to the Baha’i writings, is likened to the pupil of the eye. Although black, the pupil is what brings in all the light and makes sight possible. That is the role prescribed to African-Americans–to help society see, and this couldn’t be any more true than in sports.
There has been a black prophetic tradition in sports that has constantly shook the consciousness of not just this country, but the world. It was track legend Jessie Owens who dominated the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, at the height of Nazism, and who debunked the myth that Blacks were inferior to whites athletically. It was Jessie Jackson who challenged baseball, and who continually remained cool, calm, and collective despite the racist backlash from spectators. Then Muhammad Ali, a black Muslim who, on national radio, without any fear or doubt, pointed out the blatant contradiction between the War in Vietnam and American racism.
The role that black athletes have played in sports wasn’t just to be racial pioneers and break down barriers, but also to show that those barriers existed–not just institutionally, but because people allowed them to be the norm, or the unspoken law. This last week, Sherman did just that. He’s opened the floor for a much-needed debate in one of the most followed sports in this country. He exposed the prejudices some people may not have even known that they had.
Through all this craziest, not only am I rooting for Sherman to triumph over all of this, but I’m rooting for Americans to see the light and stand on the right side of history–for once.