John Arthur Johnson was born March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas. Both of his parents were born into and existed in the dehumanizing cruelty of slavery. Johnson lived in the system of Jim Crow. But he would rise from the boundaries that had held other African Americans down and forever carve his place in history. Today, we remember him as the great boxer Jack Johnson.
When Jack Johnson began his professional boxing career, it was possible for African American to wear the crown of champion in the lower weight classes. Unfortunately, the world heavyweight championship was off limits. But Johnson was not deterred. He pursued this seemingly unattainable goal with great tenacity. For two years, he stalked the reigning world champion Tommy Burns, pressuring him into a fight. On December 26, 1908, Jack Johnson defeated Burns, becoming the first black world heavyweight champion.
Johnson was not one to "stay in his place", as was expected of African Americans of the day. He openly dated white women, marrying two of them. This at a time when a black man could get lynched or beaten just for "improperly" looking at a white woman.
And it didn't bother him when he entered the various sport venues past men with loaded shotguns threatening him with death if he won. Nicknamed the "Galveston Giant", he'd taunt his opponents in the ring as he destroyed them, then he'd defiantly grin into the crowd as he was proclaimed the victor once again.
This prompted such animosity among many whites that a search for the "great white hope" to defeat him was launched. For years, it failed. Johnson defeated all challengers. Then, on April 5, 1915, Jack Johnson loss to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba, in round 26 of the scheduled 45 round fight.
Jack Johnson then became the symbol of white fear of the black man rising to a position of power. Many also felt the self-assured and confident example he set for African Americans was dangerous to America. It was rumored that a gentleman's agreement was struck. The world heavyweight title would "remain in the family". Whether this was true or not, no black man was allowed to hold the title until the "Brown Bomber" Joe Louis defeated James J. Braddock (known as the "Cinderella Man") on June 22, 1937.
This was over twenty-two years after Jack Johnson lost the title.
President Obama is nothing like Jack Johnson. He's not a boxer. But like Johnson, he is black and he is a first. He's the first African-American President in the history of the United States. And it wasn't black people alone who put him there. He was elected by Americans of all colors. America has indeed changed.
However, there are many Americans who cannot and will not accept an African American as President of United States. Did any of these people send out pictures of the White House with rows of watermelons planted on the front lawn when President Bush was elected? What about during President Reagan's two terms?
Of course not. Just as those who declared it was their duty to see that he failed in leading the country through our troubled times, this experience is unique to President Obama for the obvious reason.
So, will President Obama be Jack Johnson-ed? If he becomes a single-term President, will he become the symbol of why blacks can't be trusted with the office? Will it be like some sort of cultural experiment?
Yeah, we tried that once, but it just didn't work out!
President Obama will have to do as others have done who were reelected. He'll have to earn it. And I know he wouldn't want it any other way. But he'll have to carry a heavy burden, similar to what every African American has had to carry since we arrived in this country. How history judges the black race, not just him. However, his will be even heavier because there will be many who will try to sell the idea that the office of the President is best if it "remained in the family".
Perhaps for another twenty-two years.