If Johnson was born at the end of one major era of social reform—Reconstruction, he lived his years as a competitive boxer under the thrall of another—the Progressive Era. Between 1912 and 1920,
the Constitution was amended four times, more than any other eight-year stretch in American history:
- the imposition of the federal income tax,
- the direct election of senators,
- the right for women to vote, and
- Prohibition were all added as amendments in what was one of the most intense periods of legislative social reform ever.
So, somehow immorality was tied, in the public's mind, to race mixing. Johnson, the rebel who advocated no cause but his own right to be himself, found himself squeezed between temperance and a national sex purity impulse.
- He was a boxer, so this made him something of an underground figure to begin with. Boxing was coming under attack by reformers at this time as a barbaric sport.
- He was black, which made him an outcast in his society.
- Finally, he consorted with white women, which made him a public menace.
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a 2 part film by Ken Burns and PBS 2005.
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who openly identified with Johnson in interviews and in his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (1975). Ali also got into trouble with the government—over the draft. Ali refused conscription on religious grounds, that he was a Muslim minister as a member of the Nation of Islam. Ali was convicted, like Johnson, but instead of leaving the country (he couldn't because the government had confiscated his passport), Ali endured an exile from his profession, being denied a boxing license for three and a half years.
But how alike were the two men, really? Not really very much at all, other than being black heavyweight champions who were convicted for violating a federal law. In some ways, the presence of Ali at the time obscured Johnson from view, as Johnson seemed to be important only inasmuch as he adumbrated Ali. Now, the late 1960s are over, as is Ali's era. We can look back at Johnson now and give him the examination he deserves, without someone else getting in the way.