Biographer speaks about Jack Johnson

By Becca DeLauter

Boxer Jack Johnson not only fought in the ring, but also fought for racial justice, according to his biographer.

The biographer, Theresa Runstedtler, an associate professor of history at American University, spoke to a group of about 30 students as well as a few Hood faculty members March 19 about former world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, and the controversial nature by which he fought white supremacy in the early 20th century. Her lecture was based on her biography, “Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line.”

Runstedtler began the lecture by comparing Jack Johnson with Muhammad Ali, who called Johnson “Papa Jack” and modeled himself after Johnson’s “unapologetic image.” She said that Johnson was a global symbol of black resistance, but was also criticized for marrying white women and displaying his wealth and class status.

“People see him as a flamboyant prize fighter with no consciousness,” she said, “But he was someone who was just the epitome of strength.”

Rather than focus on how many fights he won, Runstedtler said she chose to focus on his legacy. She mostly described his actions in pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time, and the fact that Johnson fought against white supremacy and stereotypical “black” notions.

“I had a hunch that if I looked at the local newspapers, I would find a much more complicated story—not that he just travelled and had fights,” she said.

Runstedler used examples of political cartoons to back up her belief that Johnson had an openly political agenda. She wanted to convey that the way he was illustrated in the cartoons—drawn by white supremacists—proved that he was not just an athlete, but he was also an activist.

The event coordinator, Jay Driskell, a professor of history at Hood, provided a mixed view of Johnson as he commented on his controversial nature.

“The ability to face limited career options, low wages, and race—to be able to withstand that—is very admirable,” Driskell said, “But his victories were very individual. In a situation like that, you have to collectively take an entire group of people and have them triumph together.”

Yet students attending the lecture thought Johnson’s efforts were positive stamps on African-American history.

Jasmine Smith, a senior, said she enjoyed the lecture. “It’s not something you hear about—an African-American being a sports hero that early in history,” she said.

And Victoria Wright, a junior, had a passionate response to the topic of this lecture.

“It’s important to get as much African-American history out there as you can because it’s neglected in schools,” she said. “I feel like it’s my duty to keep that part of history that’s neglected alive.”

Runstetdler called what Driskell referred to as a “very profound self-confidence.”; an “unapologetic swagger,” and she felt as though the character he created played into his fight against white supremacy.

She said: “How could he not know it was political? He reads his own hype in the sense that he knows exactly what he’s doing. I don’t know how he couldn’t see it.”

In her final thoughts she summarized her lecture looking at the bigger picture.

She said, “Although he was a star athlete, the bigger scope was his fight against the color-line.”

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