Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America

By Patrick B. Miller; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

3

YEAR OF THE COMET

Jack Johnson versus Jim Jeffries, July 4, 1910

Randy Roberts

"IT AMUSES ME TO hear this talk of Jeffries claiming the championship. Why, when a Mayor leaves office he's an ex-Mayor, isn't he? When a champion leaves the ring he's an ex-champion. Well, that is Jeffries; if he wants to try to get the championship back then I'm willing to take him on." Johnson was tired of hearing about Jeffries as if the former champion were still the title-holder. In fact, that was just what many white Americans believed. They believed Johnson's claim lacked legitimacy, that if Jeffries had not retired, Johnson would not be champion, which was true, since Jeffries would never have broken the color barrier. At best, Johnson was viewed as a regent, a temporary ruler who would step aside once Jeffries decided to resume his reign. And throughout 1909, as Johnson humiliated one white pretender after another, the pressure mounted for Jeffries once again to raise high his scepter. 1

Few if any fights in history generated as much interest as the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries match. The Johnson-Burns and Johnson-Ketchel affairs were mere warm-ups; the 1910 fight was for all "the racial marbles." From the very first, it was advertised as a match of civilization and virtue against savagery and baseness. As early as April 1909 the Chicago Tribune realized what was at stake. It printed a picture of a cute young blond girl pointing a finger at the reader; underneath was the caption: "Please, Mr.Jeffries, are you going to fight Mr.Johnson?" 2 Her call was as clear and her point as straight as Kitchener's in his famous Great War poster. Humanity needed Jeffries. He had inherited the White Man's Burden and he could not plead retirement to cloak his weariness.

The year 1910 was the center point of Johnson's life. It was a year that a Greek dramatist would have loved, for it saw both his greatest triumph and the actions that led inexorably to his fall. During those twelve months Johnson was engulfed by restless energy. He moved about like a caged lion, seldom spending more than a night or two in any one city before traveling to another town. Always calm and pleasant in public, in his private affairs he was often violent and mean. The speed of his life was becoming increasingly difficult to control, but he did not-or could not-take his foot off the accelerator.

Johnson left California a few days after his fight with Ketchel. Belle Schreiber, his mistress, went with him, as did George Little, his manager, and a prostitute he was seeing named Lillian St.Clair, who had worked alongside Belle at the Everleigh Club. They rolled

-45-

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