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Unforgivable Blackness: A Film Directed by Ken Burns

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Photo: Jack Johnson, 1910

Jack Johnson — the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World, whose dominance over his white opponents spurred furious debates and race riots in the early 20th century — enters the ring once again in January 2005 when PBS airs Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a provocative new PBS documentary by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. The two-part film airs on PBS Monday-Tuesday January 17-18, 2005, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Burns, whose past films on PBS (The Civil War, Baseball, JAZZ, etc.) are among the most-watched documentaries ever made, shows the gritty details of Johnson's life through archival footage, still photographs, and the commentary of boxing experts such as Stanley Crouch, Bert Sugar, the late George Plimpton, Jack Newfield, Randy Roberts, Gerald Early and James Earl Jones, who portrayed Johnson in the Broadway play and film based on Johnson's life, "The Great White Hope."

"Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country — economically, socially and politically," said Burns. "He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual."

Johnson, who was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, began boxing as a young teenager in the Jim Crow-era South. Boxing was a relatively new sport in America, and was banned in many states. African-Americans were permitted to compete for most titles, but not for the title that whites considered their exclusive domain: Heavyweight Champion of the World. African-Americans were considered unworthy to compete for the title — not for lack of talent, but simply by virtue of not being white.

Despite this, Johnson was persistent in challenging James J. Jeffries — the heavyweight champion at the time, who was considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight in history — for a shot at the title. For 14 years, Johnson had made a name for himself as well as a considerable amount of money with his ability to beat black and white opponents with shocking ease. Jeffries, however, refused to fight a black boxer and instead decided to retire undefeated.

Then in 1908, after defeating most other white opponents, the new champion Tommy Burns agreed to fight Johnson in Australia for the unheard of sum of $30,000. In the 14th round, after beating Burns relentlessly, the fight was stopped and Johnson became the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World.

In Unforgivable Blackness, Johnson biographer Randy Roberts observes, "The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here. That this may be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society."

His victory spurred a search among whites for a "great white hope" who could beat Johnson and win back the title. They finally found him in Johnson's old nemesis, Jim Jeffries, who decided to return from retirement and give Johnson the fight he had always wanted. This fight was especially important to Johnson, because many whites had dismissed his claim to the title as invalid; Burns, it was argued, was never the true champion because he didn't win the title by beating Jeffries. No one had beaten Jeffries, and most thought he was certain to reclaim the title for whites.

The Johnson-Jeffries fight, dubbed the "Battle of the Century," took place on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada. Johnson knocked out Jeffries in the 15th round. Johnson's victory sparked a wave of nationwide race riots across in which numerous African-Americans died. Newspaper editorials warned Johnson and the black community not to be too proud. Congress eventually passed an act banning the interstate transport of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson beating his white opponents would provoke further unrest.

Perhaps even more troubling for white America than Johnson's dominance over his white opponents in the boxing ring were his romantic entanglements with white women. One of his frequent traveling companions was Hattie McClay, a white prostitute. They were later joined by Belle Schreiber, also a white prostitute whom Johnson met in Chicago. "He wouldn't let anybody define him," says James Earl Jones in Unforgivable Blackness. "He was a self-defined man. And this issue of his being black was not that relevant to him. But the issue of his being free was very relevant."

Johnson eventually married a white woman, Etta Duryea. Their relationship was troubled; Johnson drank heavily and abused her; she was a victim of chronic depression. Duryea eventually committed suicide in 1912. Three months later, Johnson married Lucille Cameron, another white woman and a former prostitute. In 1910, Congress passed the Mann Act, which outlawed the transportation of women in interstate or foreign commerce "for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." While the law was intended to be used against commercialized vice, the U.S. government used it to make Jack Johnson pay for his success and his lifestyle.

In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act. His former lover, Belle Schreiber, testified against him. Even at the time it was widely thought to be a sham trial, with the prosecutor himself saying after the verdict, "This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks."

Johnson fled the country and spent several years as a fugitive in Europe. In 1914 he lost his title to Jess Willard in Cuba.

In 1920, Johnson returned to the U.S., surrendered to authorities and served his time in prison. He was never again given a shot at the heavyweight title, and in 1946, after being angered by a racist incident at a diner, drove his car too fast around a turn in North Carolina and was killed.

"Johnson's story is more than the story of a tremendous athlete, or even one who broke a color line," said Ken Burns. "It is the story of a man who forced America to confront its definition of freedom, and that is an issue with which we continue to struggle."

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is a production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C. Corporate funding provided by General Motors Corporation. Additional funding provided by PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations and Rosalind P. Walter.