Last week I wrote a blog post about the potential intersections of race, sports, and civil religion that can be examined by intellectual historians. Today I’d like to conclude my thoughts on that particular matter, with some more analysis of events that I missed last week, and also expound upon comments in an excellent (as always) comments section.
Jack Johnson, of course, is an interesting example of how African American athletes are sometimes perceived as adversaries of the American state within American civil religion. During his ascent to, and reign as, heavyweight champion of the world, Johnson was reviled for his outspokenness, his romance of several white women, and most significantly, his prowess as a boxer. It’s important to remember that African Americans in the early 20th century were seen as being either too lazy or too weak to be great athletes. With the rise of Jack Johnson, however, the creation of more modern stereotypes about African American athletes (natural athleticism, ignorant brutes) began to come into the American lexicon.
The search for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson can’t be divorced from the wider racial outlook in mainstream American society in the early 20th century. Nor can it be separated from concerns held by white elites in both the United States and Europe about the present and the future of the white race. Just as important, however, is the attitude of African American intellectuals towards Johnson. Not surprisingly, Booker T. Washington was critical of Johnson’s actions in public, stating that Johnson showed “that this is another illustration of the almost irreparable injury that a wrong action on the part of a single individual may do to a whole race.” W.E.B. Du Bois, however, wrote glowingly of Johnson and praised him as a shining example of African American achievement during an era that has come to be called the “nadir” of African American history.
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