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The Fight of the Century shook nation to its core

Published July 03. 2010 09:00AM


On the night of July 4, 1910, crowds of people took to the streets in towns and cities across America.

After all, it was Independence Day.

But that wasn't the only reason for the public demonstrations. Much of the congregating was to protest - or, in the case of the black population, to celebrate - the results of a boxing match held in Reno, Nevada.

James J. Jeffries, former undefeated heavyweight champion, and Jack Johnson, the son of African slaves who became the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, met that day in what was billed as the very first "Fight of the Century."

The pre-fight hype leading up to the fight was incredible, with newspapers across the nation, including the Tamaqua Courier, playing it up on the front page. The pompous Johnson was anything but a "people's champion" to white America. News photographs of Johnson courting white women was like pouring gasoline on a fire of racial divide that still ran deep throughout much of the nation.

The popular Jeffries, meanwhile, was seen as the "great white hope." Although he had not fought in six years, he was coaxed out of retirement. The former champion added to the pre-fight hype, stating that he felt "obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race" and to "demonstrate that a white man is king of them all."

But on Independence Day in Reno in 1910, Jack Johnson left no doubt as to who was the better man. In typical fashion, Johnson further fanned the racial flames by taunting the beaten Jeffries before the fight was mercifully ended after 15 rounds.

As news of the outcome spread through the land, blacks paraded in the streets to celebrate or gathered in prayer meetings.

Black poet William Waring Cuney later captured the great exuberance of the black race that day in his poem "My Lord, What a Morning." It states:

O my Lord

What a morning,

O my Lord,

What a feeling,

When Jack Johnson

Turned Jim Jeffries'

Snow-white face

to the ceiling.

Whites, meanwhile, felt humiliated by the defeat of their champion and vented their anger by rioting in the streets of larger cities.

In some cities, like Chicago, the police did not disturb the celebrations. But in other places, police sympathized with the angry white citizens and tried to subdue the revelers. In a few extreme cases, the rioting deteriorated into attempted lynchings. More than 25 states and 50 cities reported rioting, which caused the deaths of 23 blacks and two whites and injured hundreds more.

Fallout from the great fight did not end on July 4th and 5th. A move to censor Johnson's boxing accomplishments swept through the country within days after the fight. Mobilized by the Christian lobby and police forces, a supremacy movement was even had the backing of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

The great fight was also captured for posterity through the fledgling film industry, a relatively new avenue of entertainment promoted in local theaters and meeting halls. At the then-astronomical cost of $250,000, a number of leading companies joined forces to shoot footage of the fight and turn it into a feature-length documentary film. It was shown in halls and theaters throughout the nation and also had international distribution.

Fearing the film would rekindle race riots, officials in many towns, however, banned the fight from being shown. When Arthur Heath, Tamaqua's chief burgess, was asked about his views on having the fight film shown in town, he had no immediate reaction. Heath, however, said he did not fear a race riot since the town had "no colored population."

Heath said he received local reaction from some ministers and laymen, who objected to the film being shown. Their main concern, however, was not for racial reasons but that the film would encourage prize fighting.

Ninety-five years after the Fight of the Century, the film of the Jeffries-Johnson was entered into the United States National Film Registry which deemed it as being worthy of preservation.

The Johnson-Jeffries fight also opened up new discussion by some who questioned the integrity of the sport of boxing.

In an opinion on July 7, the Courier defended the fighting business while rebutting the Philadelphia Ledger for criticizing people in the fight game as infecting "all kinds of people" and bringing out "the lowest dregs of the population."

"The clean sporting man may drink and gamble of course, but he has a moral code that it would profit a lot of manicured, massaged aristocrats, with fine manners and chameleon souls to live up to," the Courier retorted. "He is square, clean through and through, he loves his fellow man, he laughs a lot and his laugh is the kind that comes from the heart."

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