Jack Johnson, the first black man to become the heavyweight champion of the world, may be this country’s most famous forgotten athlete. Filmmaker Ken Burns aims to correct this memory lapse in a two-part documentary airing on PBS, Monday and Tuesday nights. “Unforgivably Black: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” is not, of course, just about boxing. Burns made that clear earlier this week when he talked to The Times editorial board, bringing with him a reminder of this paper’s own past that, besides making us wince hard, helped explain the nation’s collective amnesia.
A century ago, when boxing was at the height of its popularity worldwide, blacks weren’t allowed to compete against whites in championship matches in the United States. But in 1908, Texas-born Arthur “Jack” Johnson vanquished the reigning world champ, a Canadian, in Sydney, Australia. The notion of a black champion prompted a frantic search for a “great white hope” to take back the title, or as Jack London wrote in the New York Herald, “to remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face.” James K. Jeffries, an undefeated former world champion of the proper skin hue, was coaxed out of retirement to try. The match, held in Reno on July 4, 1910, was billed as the fight of the century. Johnson was the one left smiling.
Our predecessors on this page, like Johnson himself, rightly described the match as a contest between individuals, not races. They decried the post-fight riots that left at least 26 people, mostly African Americans, dead nationwide. End of credit. Far from rising above the sentiments of the day, an editorial on July 6, 1910, reproduced in its worst part here, expressed them all too shamefully. It reminded rioting whites that their “mental superiority . . . does not rest on any huge bulk of muscle, but on brain development that has weighed words and charmed the most subtle secrets from the heart of nature.” A “Word to the Black Man” warned “do not point your nose too high” and intoned: “If you have ambition for yourself or your race, you must try for something better in development than that of the mule.”