Note: this piece focuses on some of the national context surrounding the lynching of Will Brown in 1919 Omaha, with a particular focus on race and racism in early 20th century United States. For an understanding of references made to the ‘Crystal Palace,’ please read The Lynching of Will Brown Part 2
On July 4th, 1910, Tina ‘Tiny’ Johnson was hoisted up over a crowd of ecstatic friends, family, and neighbors, and carried from a car into her house in South Chicago. Immediately a crowd of thousands gathered on her lawn demanding she show herself once again. They wanted to revel in glory together with her.
When she finally stepped out onto the porch roof, she held up a life sized poster of her son, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, in one hand, and a bouquet of flowers in the other. She led the crowd in singing ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’ until her voice gave out, and then streamed tears of joy. Many in the crowd wept with her.
Their very own golden son, Jack, had just proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was in fact the greatest boxer in the world, and that Black people can be not only equal in strength, talent, genius, and art, but can even surpass white people, something that flew against the prevailing worldview which placed humans into a racialized hierarchy with white people on top and Black people at the bottom.
Johnson, famous for smiling and dancing masterfully while swinging his fists into his opponents’ faces with force and dexterity unmatched in the annals of boxing, had just won the biggest match the sport had yet seen – the battle between human races fought in front of 20,000 people in the sweltering heat of Reno, Nevada, and broadcast across the world over radio waves. Immediately after winning, Jack Johnson bought everyone a round at the bar, sipped his cold beer, and refused to talk much about what had just transpired. He simply said, “I want to be with my mammy.”
When Johnson got back home, the joy and celebration would rise even further. Nearly every Black South Chicagoan came together for this special occasion, catching a sense of communal freedom and release, if only for a moment, through their hero, the intrepid pugilist who had just proved white society wrong once and for all in its quest to assert itself the superior race. Black people around the world were sparked to dance and sing and cry in the streets, expressing their shared sense of joy.
But only minutes after Jack Johnson’s victory over the supposedly invincible white titan Jim Jeffries, something more sinister was also brewing. The crowds of white people had been left stunned into silence. What was supposed to have been an opportunity for them to finally take back what they thought was rightfully theirs, namely supremacy in all things, including (back then) athletics, had turned into a moment of fear and loathing.
Had the ‘Black beast’ (as they called him) gotten a lucky hit? He must have. Scientists had recently been ‘proving’ the superiority of the white race and the imperialist history of the past few hundred years had clearly indicated what the racial pecking order was. Current Literature had just published an article titled, ‘The Psychology of the Prize Fight,’ in which Jeffries was predicted to win due to his naturally given white intellectual prowess over the savage Johnson. Max Balthazar of the Omaha Daily News asked if Jeffries could beat Johnson and “restore to the Caucasians the crown of elemental greatness as measured by strength of blow, power of heart and being, and withal, that cunning or keenness that denotes mental as well as physical superiority.”
Johnson answered Balthazar’s question loudly and clearly, leaving crowds of drunken white people feeling deflated and terrified while Black folks paraded through the streets oozing pure joy and confidence. White fragility was about to have its say on the matter.
Only minutes after radio broadcasters announced Johnson’s triumph, violence broke out in cities across the nation, leaving thousands injured and dozens killed. In one incident, a white man slit the throat of a Black man for cheering Johnson on. In another, a white posse set a Black tenement on fire and then blocked the doors and windows. These were full blown race riots throughout the nation, and they would not be the last.
Although the vast majority of reports indicate white mobs attacked and injured Black people (in many cases “the first n***er” they saw), the headlines often read in ways that implied Black people were to blame. A typical story from July 5th, 1910, could read like a horror film with an invisible villain: “Henry Anderson, a negro, was killed and John Anderson, his father, died today from wounds. An unidentified negro woman also died this morning, her tongue having been shot from her mouth, while shouting for Johnson.”
Who killed the Anderson men? And who shot this woman’s tongue out? We aren’t told, even as headlines frequently spun the narrative in a way that conveniently flipped blame onto the victims, as was typical then and remains so to this day.
While all these attacks were occurring, shortly after sipping his beer and speaking warmly of seeing of his mother, Johnson found himself being heckled by a group of white ruffians who challenged him to fight all of them at once. Some even threatened to kill him, something he was used to, but which also startled a couple of detectives enough to ride along with him as far as back as Omaha on his train ride home from Reno to Chicago.
Upon returning home, he received still more threats, including from a man who was caught standing in his yard, staring at the house with two firearms. When police asked why he was there with his weapons, he said he thought he “might need them” but did not specify for what. Letters flowed in to Johnson’s home from fans as well as potential murderers, who provided a steady stream of anxiety for him and everyone in his inner circle.
Yet Johnson maintained his fearless public image through it all declaring:
“If and suppose… two small words, but nobody has ever been able to explain them. One man falls out of bed and is killed, another falls from a fifty foot scaffold and lives. One man gets shot in the leg and is killed, another gets a bullet in the brain and lives. I always take a chance on my pleasures.”
It would appear the corollary is also true, as he took pleasures in chance as well.
At the turn of the century even more than today, any Black person excelling professionally was enough to make a lot of white people uncomfortable at least, and homicidal at most. Jack Johnson not only proved himself to be the greatest boxer in the world, but he did it without conforming to how white society would prefer him to be. He stuck his tongue out at the unwritten laws of the day, making him even more of a target for hatred and violence than a Black champion would have already been.
Rather than speak with humility, he spoke supreme confidence, a trait commonly perceived as charm in white men, arrogance in Black men. Rather than live modestly, he bathed himself in absolute luxury, with the finest and flashiest clothes, jewelry, and cars. He never pretended to care what white people, or anyone else for that matter, thought of him as he fought his way through all the boxers who were supposed to take him down. Perhaps most shocking, in the simple minds of his detractors, is that through it all… he continued smiling.
He smiled in 1908 as he pummeled then world champion, Candadian Tommy Burns, prompting police to break up the fight early, lest white society be forced to witness the further desecration of their king on his throne atop the boxing empire. Following this startling upset, white society desperately needed a ‘Great White Hope’ to finally wipe that damn smile off Johnson’s face. In 1910, they dumped all their hope, and cash, into Jeffries, who had been retired from boxing as the undisputed champion of the world and taken up farming in California.
Novelist and boxing enthusiast Jack London wrote, “Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. The white Man must be rescued.” The golden smile refers to Johnson’s gold teeth, which he proudly beamed at heckling white crowds as he made quick work of his opponents. This smile perfectly summed up the image of Johnson as the unrepentant savage who doesn’t know his proper place. A Black man was only supposed to smile in subservience to whiteness as he carried white luggage or shined white shoes, not as he methodically took chunks out of the very fabric of the established racial order of the world.
Johnson was also phenomenal at adding insult to injury.
Although he knew he had the massive Californian farmer right where he wanted him early in the match, he toyed with him for several rounds, to draw it out. He was notorious for playing with his opponents the way a cat plays with a mouse, hoisting them back up as they fell, just to continue dancing around them, swinging his knuckles through their chins and into their eye sockets, talking his witty shit to throngs of white people as they called him every dehumanizing name they could muster, grinning his million dollar smile as he slowly robbed white men of their dignity in front their families, their women, the entire world.
In the 15th round of the Reno fight, a smiling, playful Johnson turned serious and decided to finally send his opponent packing. Gracefully, he proceeded to knock the Great White Hope through the ropes, when Jeffries’ manager illegally pushed the dazed farmer back into the ring. Jeffries’ people couldn’t help themselves, apparently. Within seconds, Johnson devastated him once again with a flurry of blows. The crowd screamed for the referee to stop the match before Johnson could deliver the official knockout blows, and so the great battle of the races was ended early, in order to save the fragile white ego from further annihilation.
But there was another reason the match was called early. Back in 1910, the early film industry was booming and people were paying to watch boxing matches in silent movie theaters. Footage of the fight would serve as documented evidence in the case against white supremacy, and that concept was so terrifying that a law was made to ban the transport of boxing films across state lines. After the 4th of July riots, people were also scared the repeated showing of the fight would continue escalating racial violence and therefore needed to be snuffed out. The movement to ban these films was so strong that even the industry executives who stood to profit from them publicly advocated a hands off, states rights approach to allow people to decide if they wanted to show them or not.
Many states banned the film, which will appear at a normal looking speed here if you click on the settings icon at the bottom of the video to the right of closed captioning and change the speed to 0.75:
As a whole, the fight itself and the film of it were viewed by white society not as an achievement for Black people, but as a devastating blow to white supremacy which, half a century after the Civil War, was still the assumed premise for the United States in both the North and the South. In the zero sum game of racial power, any victory for Black people was viewed as a loss for white people. The Omaha Daily News stated, “in spite of occasional lynchings in the south, the social adjustment between the white and black races was coming to a better status when along came the Jeffries-Johnson prize fight and put the conditions back at least forty years.”
Meanwhile, Johnson continued being himself, pushing the boundaries of accepted racial boundaries with every step he took. As if beating white men senseless in front of the world with a gold-toothed smile wasn’t enough, he openly flaunted his taste for white women, which shot overall white sentiment about him into another dimension of hatred.
White women have historically represented purity, angelic innocence, the light of God and reason, even liberty itself, that most sacred of all American concepts. Lady liberty or Columbia brings light to dark, freedom to bondage, knowledge to ignorance, truth to falsehood, righteousness to evil.
The narrative of Manifest Destiny, that European people are God’s chosen few, whose projects of conquest and empire are part of a divine plan to bring Jesus and civilization to the untamed parts of the world, was embodied in the image of a white woman floating over the expansion of white colonial settlers westward towards the California coast. She is the mother of all that is right in the world, subservient only to God himself, guiding humanity to the very light that shone through the Crystal Palace to display all that Western civilization had achieved.
Black men, on the other hand, represented the worst of savagery, violence, and the darkness of ignorance and sin. He lurked in the shadows like Satan himself, a beast whose power must be contained and controlled at all cost, lest civilization itself be crushed by the forces of evil. The idea of a Black man bedding a white woman has long been the most terrifying of all racial fears, and any white woman who has slept with a Black man has been considered damaged goods, a once-clean, now-defiled fallen angel who has brought eternal shame upon her family’s good name.
In the supposedly zero sum game of procreation, even one Black man with a white woman threatened the entire framework upon which civilization had been built. This sexual color line between races was enforced from both ends, although often for slightly different reasons. Mixed race babies, or ‘mulatto’ as they were called then, would have widely been viewed as a step down the racial ladder for a white family, and largely as a step up for a Black family, especially because some mixed race people could live their lives ‘passing’ as white, enjoying the freedoms and privileges their whiteness afforded them. Both situations would have brought scorn from society as a whole, and for that reason ‘race mixing’ was harshly frowned upon. The major difference between the power dynamics at play here were that white parents wanted to keep their children from ‘lowering’ the family genetic line, while Black parents wanted to keep their children from being murdered in the streets.
When Johnson brought his first white wife, Etta Duryea, home for Christmas for a family photo just months after his big win in Reno, Tiny looked none too pleased with the situation. She knew the weight of the situation and what people might do to her son. Everyone knew, they just worried about it for different reasons, and to different degrees.
But mother’s displeasure was the least of Johnson’s concerns.
When news of Johnson’s romances with numerous white women became public, white supremacists everywhere went into a frenzy. People crowded into the streets and hung him in effigy, the athletic champion’s Black body having come to symbolize all that is savage and terrifying and corrupting, that was coming to rob the white woman of her virtue, the white man man of his dignity. The savage beast had escaped its cage and was coming to destroy civilization itself. Left unchecked, it would have its own barbaric way. The time had come to fight back, to show the strength of whiteness over the forces of darkness, to put the beast back in chains where it belongs, to confine it to its cage once again.
The contrast between the life size image of Johnson in his mother’s hand as she sang and cried tears of joy communally with the Black people of South Chicago and the effigies of him that white people hung in the streets downtown demonstrate the range of confusion Black people have had to feel existing in a white supremacist society. Their mothers have nursed them and loved them as humans, yet the larger society around them has elaborate systems in place to destroy their sense of humanity at every turn.
It would have been fine and well for Johnson to think of himself as a real man personally, so long as he didn’t act as such in front of the white gaze. Behind closed doors, a Black man could think whatever he wanted of himself. It was Johnson’s open refusal to act as if he were a mere beast, a spectacle designed to maximize its entertainment value for white eyes, that set white people into such a mad frenzy. He could have even challenged white supremacy and acted as a heel for a time, for dramatic effect, but if he didn’t go down in the end, giving whiteness its hero status back in the narrative, then he must be destroyed.
And so whiteness went to work using its vast tentacles of power in the task of destroying Jack Johnson.
If he couldn’t be destroyed inside the ring, he would have to be dismantled outside of it. First and foremost, the film footage of the fight had been censored. That was just an image, like an effigy, and white society could control an image. But with the living, breathing Johnson riding around in his expensive cars, flashing that smile with white women on his arm, something else had to be done. There had to be a way to cage the actual beast, not just his image.
In 1910, the same year Johnson knocked out the ‘Great White Hope’ Jim Jeffries, the federal government passed the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for sex work or the decidedly vague “any other immoral purposes”. While the aim of the bill was partially well intended, aiming at saving underage girls from being trafficked into what was called ‘white slavery,’ there was also a racist angle to it, since a lot of the criminal underworld was associated with night clubs where jazz music was performed and ladies of the night mingled with men of all races ready to gamble, drink, and pay for sex.
Because poverty and crime have always been intimately connected, and centuries of systemic racism has ensured a disproportionate number of Black people will be living in poverty, the criminal underworld was always associated with Blackness. Jazz music served as the soundtrack to the seedy narratives that played out in red light districts across the nation, where men made and lost fortunes, where addiction and abuse was rampant, and disease spread from the streets into the homes of ‘respectable people.’
White society was terrified that its young women would be lured into this world of sin by the intoxicating music, drugs, and Black men who frequented these nightclubs. In this setting, evil itself was thought to be festering on any given night, just a short drive away from nice homes where good, God-fearing white parents raised their children – where fathers watched over their angelic daughters and made sure to steer them on the path of righteousness, the path of light, the path of pure Christian whiteness.
In line with the modernist notion of progress at the center of the Crystal Palace, social scientists set out to study the inner workings of this underworld in order to find solutions, in order to take the 2+2=5 of vice and turn it into the 2+2=4 of an orderly society where crime and disease were things people only read about in history books. In order to put theory to practice, local, state, and federal agencies were established. The seeds of the FBI were thus planted with the stated aim of protecting women from coerced sex work, but which in practice also policed women’s sexuality, as not all sex work is coerced. None of the studies or policies of this time placed focus on the johns, whose demand for sexual services paved the way for entire industries to thrive in red light districts.
When it came time to hammer Johnson with something, police attempted to use his own wife against him, although by this time he was with his second wife, Lucille Cameron. Etta Duryea had shot herself in the apartment they shared above Johnson’s newly established Cafe de Champion, much to the delight of moral crusaders who preached that white women in the arms of Black men led to certain doom. When Cameron’s mother came to police claiming Johnson had kidnapped her daughter, police pounced. She told the press,”Jack Johnson has hypnotic powers, and he has exercised them on my little girl. I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a n****r.” But when police tried to get Lucille to turn against the man she loved, she refused.
Then an anonymous tip led investigators to Belle Schreiber, a sex worker whom Johnson had favored years earlier. She and a chauffeur testified that Johnson had transported her across state lines and had sex with her. Although Schreiber had been (barely) of age and consenting, she had become angry with Johnson, and played ball with authorities as they used the vague language of the Mann Act to hit the world champion athlete with charges.
White Americans shrieked with joy.
Sandy Griswold of the Omaha World Herald wrote, “the wire brought the glad tidings last evening that at last a white hope had succeeded in landing a knockout wallop on Jack Johnson. His name is Uncle Sam and he not only knocked the big black blackguard out, but knocked him in also into the pen, and it is to be hoped for the limit – ten years.”
Johnson skipped out to Europe and later Mexico for several years, before eventually returning to serve a year in prison, his debt to society for being a Black man who slept with white women. This would be as close as white American society would get to doing to the real man what they did to his effigy.
In the meantime, while many states banned the film of Johnson systematically dismantling the Great White Hope, another film was in the works – one that would revolutionize cinema and become the first feature length Hollywood blockbuster that everyone simply had to see, and the first film to be screened in the White House for the president himself.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ reversed the narrative told in the Johnson vs Jeffries film. This time, instead of being forced to watch the villainous Black beast win the day, white audiences would watch in elaborate detail as the Black beast threatens white womanhood and civilization itself, then be treated to a Great White Hope that comes along and vanquishes the beast at long last, providing the emotional release white folks had felt entitled to, and deprived of, five years prior which resulted in widespread anti-Black violence and murder.
The film depicts an ugly picture of Reconstruction, with newly emancipated Black people in the South acting like savages destroying white civilization, most notably by kidnapping and assaulting white women. Upon being released from the chains of enslavement, Black men were coming to put white women in chains, in order to defile them. In one particularly absurd scene, a lily white angel is chased right off a cliff by a Black man. Of course, the film makers didn’t hire Black actors, opting to put white actors in Blackface instead.
In the final scene, as the armed Black savages close in on a group of white folks holed up in a cabin, the representatives of Great White Hope are rushing to save the day on horseback. Will they make it in time? At the last second, the white saviors finally burst onto the scene, overpower the Black savages, and save the poor white victims. As if to put a white supremacist cherry on top of this groundbreaking and grotesque film, its protagonists are none other than the Ku Klux Klan.
While the premise might seem ridiculous to us today, it became fairly mainstream in white American society at the time. And while white Christian terrorist groups like the KKK are often spoken of as isolated pockets of extremists who have more bark than bite and whose impact is often overstated, they had millions of members who signed up to actually be officially linked to the Klan, and that doesn’t count the other millions who might not have signed up, but who supported their ideas. The millions of official Klan members were the tip of the spear, while the shaft stretched throughout much nation, including through institutions of real power and influence.
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Edward Douglass White, a former member of the Klan himself, persuaded the entirety of the Supreme Court to see the film. These were some of the most powerful people in the nation, together in a room watching white Christian supremacist propaganda films, and discussing its merits as real history.
Thomas Dixon Jr., who wrote the book upon which the movie was based, said, “the real purpose of my film was to revolutionize Northern sentiments” and in a letter to Woodrow Wilson, wrote, “this play is transforming the entire population of the North and the West into sympathetic Southern voters. There will never be an issue of your segregation policy.” When the film was screened in the White House, President Wilson surely enjoyed seeing himself quoted in one of the intertitles:
The narrative presented in the film was given credibility not only from President Wilson and the Supreme Court, but also from prominent historians such as Claude Bowers, whose work including the 1929 book The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln was favorited by Franklin Roosevelt, who would go on to oversee the repulsive imprisonment of Japanese civilians during World War II. Bowers was keynote speaker at the 1928 Democratic National Convention and went on to serve as ambassador to Spain and Chile, an influential voice in FDR’s ear and a powerful voice in the telling of American history generally. By placing the narrative told in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ into actual history books, Dixon’s racist propaganda thus came to be embedded into the official national psyche.
Dixon’s propaganda worked quickly. During the scene where a Black man chases a white woman off a cliff, one man took out his gun and shot at the screen, feeling the urge to protect her. This blurring of fiction and reality fanned long burning flames across the nation, providing fertile ground for whiteness to organize itself into a concerted effort to cage the Black beast, as the KKK did in the film, in order to free white women and white civilization itself from the bondage of sinful Black savagery.
Only months after the film was released, failed Methodist Minister William Joseph Simmons and a group of other bitter white men were inspired to walk to the top of Stone Mountain in the middle of Georgia and declare the revival of the long-defunct Ku Klux Klan, which had risen and fallen through the Reconstruction era. Inspired by fraternal organizations and The Birth of a Nation, they dressed themselves in white robes and dunce caps, opened a bible and set a cross on fire, marking the first official cross burning ceremony and the official rebirth of the KKK, which Simmons hoped to make bigger and better than ever.
The white robes and cross burning ceremony were not a part of the original Ku Klux Klan – Simmons lifted those ideas directly from ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ where they first appeared. Movie executives had hired men to dress up in the Klan’s white robes and ride on horseback at movie theaters as a promotional tool. Again, fiction and reality blurred together, from film to real life.
If Jack Johnson represented the Black savage coming to defile white civilization and liberty herself, the Klan represented the Great White Hope that Jim Jeffries was not. Whiteness would no longer have to see its potency diminished by a virile, dancing Black man flashing his golden teeth. Now, dashing white Christian terrorists on horseback would save America by putting the Black beast back into the cage where it belonged.
At the same time, the narrative of clean, sparkling human progress in the Crystal Palace had been defiled by the insanity of World War 1. If the story of humanity is one of progress, then how and why did it feel like everything was in ruins? If we were supposed to have mapped out the path towards utopia, where human flourishing would be activated as simply as solving 2 + 2 = 4, then why did the calculator of history keep giving us 2 + 2 = 5?
The fear and confusion of war would not end when the bullets stopped flying, and whiteness would not immediately blame its own institutions for causing that confusion. Upon returning home to a confused nation, white American soldiers joined the frenzied white masses to find their scapegoat in Blackness. White America then unleashed all the power and fury of the Klan, the tip of the spear, with much of the rest of white society as the shaft, to stab the Black beast into submission. In their minds, the body of the Black man needed to be taught a lesson, and so they would have their way, finally, in carrying out their terrorist educational mission.
The image of the Black body Tiny Johnson held in her hand, which evoked so much pure communal joy to the Black people of South Chicago, which represented the hopes and dreams of a better world for Black people, also represented all that was wrong in the world in the minds of those white people wielding the keys to power. After 1915, these white people had a film to assure them they were correct about the nature of the problem, and to sell them a solution in the form of white Christian terrorism.
Meanwhile, in Omaha, a cold and calculating mob boss was watching it all, and light bulbs were going off in his head. He knew how he could silence his many critics once and for all. The Omaha air was thick with tension, so all he had to do was push a few buttons to make it explode into madness. Then the people of Omaha would realize they need him once again, to make things make sense once again…