The difficulties which both White and Black Americans had with Jack Johnson, the first Black man to win the world heavyweight boxing championship, resulted from his status as a reluctant hero. Johnson was hated by White Americans for exhibiting a strong sense of individuality, for excelling in a sport that had previously been closed to men of his race, and for asserting his right to love the three White women whom he married. And although Black Americans admired his courage and felt vindicated by his success in the ring, they were troubled by the ways that Johnson’s uncompromising individuality distanced him from the Black community, and by the fact that White Americans used his behavior as an excuse to seek reprisals against that community.
In particular, Black Americans were angered by Johnson’s relationships with White women. That anger was motivated, in part, by the same race prejudice that moved the White community to object to Johnson’s romantic and sexual preference for White women. However, the anger of the Black community was also a product of their fear that Johnson’s objective was to associate himself with those on the upper rungs of the racial hierarchy rather than to dismantle that hierarchy. Just as Albert Memmi warned that “[t]he first ambition of the colonized is to become equal to that splendid model [of the colonizer] and to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him. . . . [and that a] mixed marriage is the extreme expression of this audacious leap,”the Black community suspected that Johnson’s first allegiance was not to the oppressed racial community whose fortunes were significantly impacted by his behavior, but to himself - irrespective of how his individual desires affected that community.
Morgan, Denise C.
"Jack Johnson: Reluctant Hero of the Black Community,"
Akron Law Review: Vol. 32
, Article 3.
Available at: https://ideaexchange.uakron.edu/akronlawreview/vol32/iss3/3