In the history of American sports, few athletes were as famous and hated in their day as Jack Johnson. The first African American boxing champion, Johnson was an astonishingly brash figure who flouted the prejudices held by white Americans. His 1910 victory over James J. Jeffries, the former champion dubbed the “Great White Hope,” set off clashes between whites and blacks in cities across America—one of the most widespread and notorious episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. But Johnson was far more than a figure of American sports. He was, in the fullest sense, the world heavyweight champion. He won the title in 1908 in Australia, and lost it seven years later in Cuba. When he fought, news of the matches was reported around the world. And during and after his years as champion, Johnson lived abroad as an exile. Charged in the U.S. with trafficking a white woman for immoral purposes, Johnson spent seven years moving between England, France, Russia, Spain, Argentina, Barbados, Cuba, and Mexico. At every stop, he was celebrated—and condemned. But he was never quiet, and he was never boring.
In her book Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (University of California Press, 2012), Theresa Runstedtler presents the fighter in this broader, international perspective. As she explains in the interview, Johnson was like other African American men of the turn of the century who traveled the world in order to overcome the racial constraints of American society. While abroad, he offered direct criticisms of American racism in newspaper articles and autobiographical writings. But he also encountered racism in new forms, coming to realize that Jim Crow was one part of a worldwide phenomenon. At the same time, Johnson stoked white fears around the world. In South Africa and India, as well as in the United States, officials and journalists dreaded the effects that another Johnson victory would have on local black and brown populations: the people who were supposed to be their subject inferiors. For them, the search for a “white hope” was not simply a matter of putting the brash fighter in his proper place. It was a matter of confirming their racial superiority.