THE UNFORGIVEN: Jack Johnson and Barry Bonds

BARRY BONDS: Home Run King. As the San Francisco Giants slugger approaches Henry Aaron’s record for career homers, this probability seems to be turning otherwise rational people upside down, as Bonds has encountered an almost surreal level of hostility. The rage was on full display this past weekend in Boston, where Bonds had already made friends in 2004 by saying, “Boston is too racist for me.” (To read background on that particular tempest in a Boston teapot, check out “Barry Bonds vs. Boston” check out (

But the bellowing fury directed at Bonds is hardly resigned to the good people of Beantown. Outside the San Francisco Bay Area, it has become a peculiar kind of national obsession.

Sports has always had its anti-heroes, but the antipathy directed at Bonds by both media and “fans” has been of a different texture. It doesn’t just boo: it seethes.

Some say they can’t stand Bonds because they suspect —with the smug certitude of having received holy writ —that he has used steroids. (For a full discussion on the hypocrisy of anti-steroid hysteria, check out my article, “The juice and the noose,”

Others say it is his “surly attitude,” or “bad sportsmanship.”

But much of the reaction to Bonds is simply bad old-fashioned racism. Not since Jack Johnson has an athlete become the repository for so much racial animus —and revealed broader gaps in Black and white perceptions—as Barry Lamar Bonds.


In 1908, when Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, his victory created a serious crisis in the “conventional wisdom” about race. When Johnson told the world to go to hell and openly consorted with white women, crisis became hysteria. The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for a “great white hope” (a phrase coined by author Jack London) to restore order to the boxing world—and the world in general. Former champion Jim Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement and said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

In the weeks before their fight, Johnson—in stark contrast to the standard African-American posture of the day—was more than willing to be heard. In a July 4, 1910, Philadelphia Inquirer story titled, “Johnson believes he’s Jeff’s master,” he is quoted as saying, “I honestly believe that in pugilism I am Jeffries’ master, and it is my purpose to demonstrate this in the most decisive way possible…. Let me say in conclusion that I believe the meeting between Mr. Jeffries and myself will be a great test of strength, skill, and endurance. The tap of the gong will be music to me.”

This might seem tame by contemporary standards, but at the time it was verbal TNT. To say he was a white man’s master a mere fifty years after the formal end of chattel slavery was simply explosive.

But Johnson wasn’t merely despised: he was hated by one Americaand revered—if not loved—by another.

A piece in the Dallas Morning News titled, “Negroes praying for Johnson,” reads, “Some others fear trouble if he [Johnson] wins and are consequently boosting Jeffries…. For the first time Independence Day will be enjoyed as a real holiday by the Negroes tomorrow.”

When Jeffries and Johnson finally squared off, the ringside band played, “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” and promoters led the all-white crowd in the chant “Kill the nigger.” But Johnson was faster, stronger, and smarter than Jeffries, knocking him out with ease. In an early incarnation of the information superhighway, young children working as “telegram runners” ran through city streets shouting out the progress after each round.

As Johnson wrote in his autobiography,

More than 25,000 people had gathered to watch the fight, and as I looked about me, and scanned that sea of white faces I felt the auspiciousness of the occasion. There were few men of my own race among the spectators. I realized that my victory in this event meant more than on any previous occasion. It wasn’t just the championship that was at stake—it was my own honor, and in a degree the honor of my own race…. The “white hope” had failed.

This was no idle boast. As the New York World wrote, “That Mr. Johnson should so lightly and carelessly punch the head of Mr. Jeffries must come as a shock to every devoted believer in the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race.”

But far more important than respect gained from the New York World, was his folkloric status in the Black community. As one spiritual sang,

“Amaze an’ Grace, how sweet it sounds,

Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down.

Jim Jeffries jumped up an’ hit Jack on the chin,

An’ then Jack knocked him down agin.

The Yankees hold the play,

The white man pulls the trigger;

But it make no difference what the white man say,

The world champion’s still a nigger”

After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the country—in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attacking Blacks, and Blacks fighting back.

This reaction to a boxing match was the most widespread racial uprising that the U.S. had ever seen—or would see—until the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Right-wing religious groups immediately organized to ban boxing. Congress actually passed a law banning boxing films.

Even some Black leaders pushed Johnson to condemn African Americans for rioting, and to toe the line. But Johnson remained defiant. For this mortal sin—and a variety of venal ones—he faced harassment and persecution for most of his life. He was forced into exile in 1913 on the trumped-up charge of transporting a white woman across state lines for prostitution. As Johnson wrote in his autobiography, “In the Ring and Out,” as soon as he defeated Jeffries, “From that minute on, the hunt for the

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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