The 1910 fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries was far more than just an athletic event. The contest between the first black heavyweight champion and a former titlist who’d previously refused to confront black challengers spotlighted and enflamed the volatile attitudes concerning race, identity, meritocracy and manhood not only of the two athletes but of the nation as a whole. The staunchly individualistic Johnson was a polarizing figure, and the racism of those supporting the Great White Hope Jeffries was sickeningly commonplace. Clearly, the struggle involved much more than just two men.
As I’ve mentioned before, I gave a talk called “Jack Johnson’s Fourth of July” at the centennial celebration of the Johnson-Jeffries bout in Reno, where the fight was held. The Nevada Review, a multidisciplinary journal that examines Nevada’s role in the political and historical development of the United States, has printed my remarks. The fall 2010 edition (Vol. 2, No. 2) is available from selected bookstores as well as Amazon.