On Contact: Boxing white supremacy
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to Professor Gerald Horne about the importance of boxing in the shattering of white supremacy. Professor Horne’s new book is ‘The Bittersweet Science: Racism, Racketeering and the Political Economy of Boxing’.
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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact. Today, we discuss the importance of boxing and the shattering of White supremacy with historian Gerald Horne.
Gerald Horne: There are these ideas about the Black masculinity that are shattered, these ideas of Black masculinity were used as a justification for Jim Crow for this so-called inferior caste speaking of Black men in particular, then you have the reality that after these Black boxers were able to accumulate a sort of wealth, a kind of wealth, they were able to pour some of the income into progressive causes. It's not just Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali. There are scores of other boxers who act as similar. And this provided the wherewithal for anti-Jim Crow organizations and movements to be able to hire staff, to hire lawyers, to mobilize people in the streets. So boxing is an important story to discuss when you're trying to understand social, political, and economic change in the United States of America.
CH: Slave holders in the Antebellum South frequently stage boxing matches between men they held in bondage. This bondage changed little after slavery, when Black boxers were managed by White promoters as if they were thoroughbred horses. Boxing was, as the historian Gerald Horne writes in his new book The Bittersweet Science: Racism, Racketeering, and the Political Economy of Boxing, the ne plus ultra of capitalism endowed with its primary accoutrements, White supremacy, masculinity, violence, profiteering, and corruption. Those exploited in the ring like those exploited on plantations were physically broken before reaching old age. It is estimated that 87% of boxers suffer brain damage. Between 1945 and 1985, 370 pugilists died from boxing injuries. But at the same time, with very few opportunities for Blacks, boxing was a way to battle back against White supremacy, especially when striking a White man in the South could mean death, while beating a White man senseless in the ring saw Black boxers compensated and even lionized. At the height of segregation and lynching, it was possible to attend fights or as many Blacks did, listen to radio broadcast where Black boxers beat into incoherence, those who arrogantly defined themselves as the superior race. The cultural importance of the boxing champion Joe Louis, for example, who competed from 1934 to 1951 and reigned as the World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 to 1949 was immense. He was the first person of African-American descent in the United States to achieve the status of a nationwide hero, shattering with his athletic prowess the negative stereotypes used by Whites to dismiss Blacks as lazy, yellow, dimwitted, and inferior. Joining me to discuss the intersection of White supremacy, capitalism, and boxing is the historian Gerarld Horne, the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African-American Studies at the University of Houston and the author of The Bittersweet Science: Racism, Racketeering, and the Political Economy of Boxing. So I didn't mention Jack Johnson in the intro. We'll talk about him. He didn't achieve Joe Louis's position because he wasn't as obsequious as you write in the book as Johnson was. But let's go all the way back to slavery. Because this was--I didn't know this until I read your book. This was a kind of a sporting event for White slaveholders.
GH: Well, yes. I mean, there's a phenomenon known as the Battle-Royal whereby a number of young Black men, seven, eight for example, are blindfolded, put into the ring, and told to go at it. The one who emerges triumphant is given some sort of prize. And in fact, Bojack from Augusta, GA who in the 1940s was one of the biggest draws at Madison Square Garden in New York City as a lightweight champion, oftentimes prevail in a Battle-Royal in Augusta, Georgia which of course is also the home of the Masters Golf Tournament. I should also put--point out that even before reaching these shores in Africa, coincidentally enough as the slave trade begins to exert itself aggressively in Southwestern Africa in Angola, in Southeastern Africa in Madagascar, you have certain kinds of martial arts that arise, for example, capoeira which is still practiced in Brazil, which is a kind of ballet and martial arts. It's suggested by certain scholars that capoeira's roots are involved in resisting enslavers. In other words, you cannot begin to understand how and why it was and to a certain degree is possible that Black Americans were so successful in the boxing ring without understanding the material conditions. That is to say there is a school of "scholarship" using the term advisably that suggest that Black Americans have excelled because of some sort of genetic makeup. I don't think that that's altogether accurate. I think that it's nurtured more so than nature. And with regard to nurture, I would also point out the concept of masculinity. Although it may be hard to imagine today, some decades ago, the idea was afloat that somehow Black men were not real men because real men do not allow themselves to be treated so atrociously. And this particular idea, it seems to me helped to inspire Black boxers decades ago to try to excel in the ring in order to beat that concept into smithereens. And indeed, I would say that that then helps to create this kind of overall culture whereby fighting against these toxic masculinity ideas, fighting against White supremacy, the need to accumulate material wealth in a capitalist society, all of that combines to create these great Black boxing champions and I would also say that the kind of aggressiveness that you see growing out of that matrix that I've just sketched also may help to shed light on why it is that today about three-quarters of the football players in the National Football League happen to be Black Americans. That is to say the culture--the cultural arguments, the nurture arguments help to explain this phenomenon more so than the so-called nature arguments.
CH: One of the things I learned in my book that I didn't know was the prevalence of Jewish fighters especially around the turn of the 20th Century. And I think you make an argument that, you know, because there were so few avenues open to people who are in impressed circumstances, they found boxing as a kind of route to achieve money and status within the society when other avenues were closed to them. So I mean, the proliferation of Jewish boxers was, you know, quite high especially in the lower weight classes.
GH: That's absolutely correct. And once again, I think you can understand this phenomenon through a nurture rather than a nature argument. I don't think that there was any particular genetic makeup of Jewish Americans that help to explain why they were excelling in the ring. It's interesting when you look at the oral histories of these great Jewish boxers. So often they talk about how they had to use their fists against their Italian-American and Irish-American neighbors. And that that's what helps to account for their excelling in the ring. It's also striking to note that there are anecdotes about young Jewish men in concentration camps who were instructed by their captors to fight for the enjoyment and the entertainment of their captors, not unlike the Battle-Royal that I just described in Augusta, Georgia. Interestingly enough, what happens after 1945, you see a diminishing of Jewish success in the ring mostly because what happens is that as a result of World War II, you have a certain discrediting of Hitlerism, a certain discrediting of anti-Semitism and with the anti-Jim Crow movement, it's oftentimes forgotten we not only have a social and economic elevation of Black Americans, you have a social and economic elevation of Jewish Americans as well. And it is not as necessary for them to use their fists in the ring to accumulate material success. They can accumulate material success by going to graduate school or going to professional schools for example or climbing the greasy pole of success on Wall Street for example. And so it's very interesting that you have these parallels from these two groups in US society, that is to say Jewish Americans and Black Americans and I guess I would be remiss if I failed to point out that you have a similar success in the state of Georgia just a few days ago and you had the first Black American Senator-elected, the first Jewish American Senator-elected and as many commentators neglected to note, Georgia feature about a hundred and five years ago the rather rants in anti-Semitism that led to the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish American business manager. And it was that particular gruesome episode that convinced many Jewish Americans to accelerate their involvement of the civil rights movement contributing to the NAACP which then culminates with this disgruntling of anti-Semitism that I described a moment or two ago.
CH: I want to talk about Jack Johnson. Fascinating figure on so many levels. And he also lives at the--he's a contemporary of W.E.B. Du Bois, probably America's greatest intellectual and Booker T. Washington. I will not attach an adjective to Booker T. Washington. But talk about him and his importance. Many people argue the greatest heavyweight ever.
GH: So Jack Johnson, born in Galveston, Texas in 1878 and achieving international prominence as the heavyweight boxing champion defeating a Euro-American competitor in Reno, Nevada in 1910. This leads to a search for so-called Great White Hope to defeat Jack Johnson and in the minds of some, restore normalcy with regard to the construction of masculinity. So--and your audience may be familiar with the movie starring James Earl Jones, the Great White Hope, which depicts the life of Jack Johnson. Because of his success, you had an attempt to ban boxing films because oftentimes what happens is if a boxing film of Jack Johnson defeating a Euro-American competitor was shown for example in Dixie, the Dixiecrats felt that this would unnecessarily inflate the ego and the confidence of Black Americans to the detriment of the Dixiecrat, so you had an attempt to wholesale ban such boxing films. Ultimately what happened to Jack Johnson is that spurious charges were brought against him which caused him to flee abroad. At one point, he set up shop in Mexico just across the border from his native Texas and this is during the Mexican Revolutionary Era, 1910 to 1920, he's seeking to align himself with radicals in Mexico setting up a kind of beachhead against Jim Crow but alas there's regime change. And Jack Johnson has to come back to face the music in the United States is jailed. But after leaving jail, he continues on his career. He spends time in Barcelona, Spain for example and sets up a socialist oriented newspaper in Barcelona, Spain by the 1930s before passing away in an automobile accident in the 1940s.
CH: Great. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the importance of boxing in breaking the stranglehold of White supremacy with historian Gerald Horne. Welcome back to On Contact, we continue our conversation about the importance of boxing in breaking the stranglehold of White Supremacy with the historian Gerald Horne. So just go back to Jack Johnson he's clearly the most talented heavyweight, White fighters don't want to fight him, that fight that he's--they finally pressure I think his name is Jeffries to come out of retirement because he's just clobbering every White fighter who gets into the ring and after he beats Jeffries, the former World Champion there are a series of pogroms, that's the only way to put it, against Blacks by enraged Whites this just carries out all sorts of violence, then as you correctly point out they use the Man Act which is a misuse the Man Act because Johnson was dating White women I mean the fascinating thing about Johnson is that he just lived as if he was free, and this enraged the White population.
GH: It certainly did and what's interesting is that the next great Black fighter who you mentioned in your introductory remarks speaking of Joe Louis, he tried to set himself up as sort of a contrast to Jack Johnson, for example Jack Johnson was oftentimes smiling as he administered knockout blows to his White competitors, Joe Louis was instructed not to smile when he was doing the same but I'm not sure if that brought on the added--the necessary conclusion because many people felt that he was acting like a kind of gravedigger when he was not smiling and looking grimly and glumly as he administered knockout blows, Joe Louis tried to avoid being photographed with White women but on the other hand he did have a particular attraction it seems to light-skinned Black women and I'm not sure if the races understood the distinction but in any case Joe Louis also tried to excel politically you may recall that in 1948 as the Cold War and the Red Scare were rising he followed his good friend Paul Robeson the entertainer singer actor in supporting the third party campaign of Henry A. Wallace who ran against Harry S. Truman, the victor, one of the final gasp of a strengthened organized left in the United States of America, he was affiliated with alleged communist fronts such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. So Joe Louis too tried to raise the banner of politics and in some ways suffer like Jack Johnson did because the Internal Revenue Service repeatedly had him in court draining his bank account in order to pay back taxes, you may recall that just before passing away that Joe Louis was a greeter so to speak at Las Vegas casinos not unlike a greeter at Walmart today which was an ignominious conclusion for what would have been a glorious career.
CH: The two things I want to talk about, you talk a lot about how these fighters are preyed upon by White managers, White agents, White promoters, you also talk about the importance of politics I mean after Jack Johnson was dethroned you had Dempsey and as was true before Johnson won the title, these White heavyweights just wouldn't even box Black fighters because it was so disruptive to the notions of--that Whites had about themselves and so just briefly tell us I mean it was just staggering the way the mob was involved, the way fighters--I mean all the way up to Joe Frazier were just fleeced by unscrupulous managers and promoters and fight entrepreneurs including I'm afraid Don King.
GH: Well, organized crime is the lurking force behind boxing not only when it achieves success on television in the 1950s. When sometimes every night, every other night there's a boxing match being televised, it's organized crime that's pulling the strings with regard to that and it's organized crime that has been very disruptive to the careers of many Black boxers often times finding black boxers finding it necessary to align either with a certain faction of organized crime or somehow to align with a Black organized crime, in fact it happens in the 1960s and 1970s, when you have the rise of the man once known as Cassius Clay now known to the world as Muhammad Ali and also the rise of Joe Frazier as well. But even though understandably and justifiably, during the segment was speaking about the stalwarts of boxing we would be remiss if we forgot to mention that there are countless boxers who never achieved prominence who went to an early grave, who suffered brain damage, who suffered all manner of injuries, who were exploited shamelessly by management, who could earn a purse or a wage shall we say of a thousand dollars for a match and not receive one penny believe it or not with that sum being appropriated by management. In some ways as your introductory remarks tend to suggest a boxing is a kind of metaphor for capitalism itself it's a kind of metaphor for the kind of quotidian exploitation that oftentimes reign supreme in this society except that it's taking place in the context of a boxing ring often taking place on television believe it or not.
CH: I want to talk about Muhammad Ali one of the points you made in the book that I thought was fascinating was that his alliance with the Nation of Islam actually gave him the muscle to push back against the mobsters who controlled most boxers like of course Sonny Liston.
GH: Well, clearly, I mean because, you know, there is a point oftentimes made in boxing movies which is an entire genre in this country where boxers themselves are beaten to a pulp by mob connected cutthroats and Muhammad Ali to an extent was able to escape that kind of dastardly faith because he had a kind of backup, he had the Nation of Islam, he had the Fruit of Islam which is this adjunct of the Nation of Islam oftentimes trained to use their fists themselves, some of them trained in martial arts themselves, and so it became easier for Muhammad Ali to escape the kind of commonplace exploitation that too often was the fate of too many boxers of Black and non-Black alike.
CH: I want to talk about politics because you argue that for instance in the tumult of the 1960s a figure like Muhammad Ali was freer to be politically radical and that the decline of those movements closed that political space for athletes and in particular boxers.
GH: Well clearly, I mean Muhammad Ali, one of the reasons why we remember this Heavyweight Boxing Champion whose roots were in Louisville, Kentucky is because after his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, he found it necessary not to be conscripted, not to be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam, as a result the titans of boxing tried to strip him of pursuing his livelihood during the peak years of his boxing career. He was forbidden from utilizing his fists in the ring as a result he turned the tables and began to tour college campuses and in fact became a kind of actor on Broadway and indeed in the movies too, the movie Freedom Road which is a dramatization--cinematic dramatization of the great novel about the late former communist writer Howard Fast, and he plays the leading role as a formerly enslaved man who becomes a U.S. Senator. So this all takes place in the context of people mobilizing the streets, anti-war movement, anti-Jim Crow movement bubbling to the surface and Muhammad Ali was able to ride that wave into prominence and as a result his case before the U.S Supreme Court, in which he sued in order to be able to pursue his livelihood as a boxer, he prevailed not least because the court found the difficult to rebel against the objective political conditions that were obtaining in terms of the anti-war movement, the anti-Jim Crow movement, et cetera. So Muhammad Ali's life is a classic tale and of course it's also been represented cinematically with Will Smith playing Ali in the ring.
CH: How important is just in summation do you think boxing was in shattering the mythology of White supremacy?
GH: Well, I think it was very important, for example as you suggested already and as I elaborated on in the book, there's these--there are these ideas about the Black masculinity that are shattered, these ideas of Black masculinity were used as a justification for Jim Crow for this so-called inferior caste speaking of Black men in particular, then you have the reality that after these Black boxers were able to accumulate a sort of wealth, a kind of wealth, they were able to pour some of the income into progressive causes. It's not just Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali. There are scores of other boxers who act as similar. And this provided the wherewithal for anti-Jim Crow organizations and movements, to be able to hire staff, to hire lawyers, to mobilize people in the streets. So boxing is an important story to discuss when you're trying to understand social, political, and economic change in the United States of America.
CH: Great that was Historian Gerald Horne on his new book the Bittersweet Science: Racism, Racketeering, and the Political Economy of Boxing.