“jeff, It’s Up To You!”
When the Negro Jack Johnson fought Jim Jeffries at Reno in 1910, more than the world heavyweight championship seemed at stake. To the many alarmed by Johnson’s unsavory reputation, Jeffries seemed nothing less than the “Great White Hope”
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
Meanwhile, reports from Jeffries’ camp at Rowardennan in the northern part of California had it that “the big fellow” was in a ferocious mood, that he ran fifteen miles a day, and that his sparring partners lived in fear of demolition. This propaganda was handed out by the former heavyweight champion, Jim Corbett, who was general manager, chief tactician, and director of psychological warfare for the Jeffries crowd. “Take it from me,” he would say to the newspapermen, “the black boy has a yellow streak, and Jeff will bring it out when he gets him into that ring.” Such training-camp dispatches soon got away from the sports departments and out on the front page, where they unrolled for column after column under headlines about “The White Man” and “The Giant Black.” Thus, as July 4 drew nearer, a feeling of racial rivalry began to permeate the air; people were exposed to it as they took in their newspapers with the milk in the morning or read the headlines over a fellow passenger’s shoulder coming home on the train.
Some educated Negroes did what they could to deflate the idea that Rickard’s boxing show symbolized a struggle of race against race. The Reverend Reverdy C. Ransom of the Bethel African Methodist Church in New York City, for example, said, “No respectable colored minister in the United States is interested in the pugilistic contest between Johnson and Jeffries, from the standpoint of race. We do not think that Jack Johnson thinks or has ever thought of holding the championship for the ‘black race.’ Johnson is not trying to win the Negro championship, but to hold and defend his title against all comers, regardless of race or color.”
Not all Negroes in the United States took Mr. Ransom’s position, for many black people liked the idea of a symbolic champion as much as some of the whites found satisfaction in the same idea from the opposite racial point of view. The Chicago Defender was the first highly successful crusading newspaper founded by and for Negroes, and it accepted the theme that racial rivalry was implicit in the match between Johnson and Jeffries. Indeed, it hammered this one note as hard as Jeffries was supposed to be pounding his sparring mates. The Defender was worthy of attention: the paper had made a fortune for its publisher, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, who lived in a mansion, kept a box at the opera, carried a gold-headed cane, and wore a silk hat, long-tailed coat, striped trousers, and spats. Little of this dignity came through in the columns of the Defender , for Abbott believed in keeping his readers stirred up. His gift for sensationalism almost equalled that of William Randolph Hearst, as he showed in a cartoon which was printed on the front page of the Defender a few weeks before the fight. The picture had Jack shaking hands with Jeffries in the ring, with the front rows occupied by men exhibiting a sign that read: “ JIM CROW DELEGATES .” The referee was a figure with the face of Satan, bearded and dressed as Uncle Sam, and labelled “Public Sentiment.” He was saying to Jim Jeffries, “We’re with you this time—go ahead.” Ranged beside Jeffries were three menacing figures labelled “Race Hatred,” “Prejudice,” and “Negro Persecution.” The legend above the cartoon was: “ HE WILL HAVE THEM ALL TO BEAT ,” and below: “The future welfare of his people forms a part of the stake.”
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Rickard seemed to have found the ideal site for a big professional heavy-weight boxing match. Local boosters had called the city the Paris of America, and though San Francisco may not have justified the sobriquet on cultural grounds, it was second to none in greedy hack drivers, exorbitant hotels, and unspeakable vices advertised and practiced in the resorts of the night-life area known as the Barbary Coast. But even in the Paris of America there were reformers, who made up for their small numbers by their earnestness and zeal. The moment the fight was announced they opened a campaign by letter, telegram, public meetings, and private interviews to get it stopped. Governor Gillett felt the heat and became uneasy. Hoping to please everybody, he announced that so far as he knew, the match was merely a “sparring contest,” and he found nothing in the state law to forbid it. Needless to say, this merely increased the reformers’ fury. Gillett had an exaggerated notion of his own importance and dreamed of Washington. It is therefore understandable that his anguish increased when a Mr. George Rockwell of Cincinnati brought into being “a national organization of business men and church people to prevent this outrage.” Rockwell printed one million postcards addressed to Gillett with the message: “ STOP THE FIGHT. THIS IS THE 20TH CENTURY .” Thus the institution of professional boxing itself and not the color of Johnson’s skin became the point of issue. Groaning in his mansion at Sacramento, Gillett cursed the day Tex Rickard came to California.