Churchill, Johnson, and the British Boxing Controversy of 1911

Churchill, Johnson, and the British Boxing Controversy of 1911

“The British Box­ing Con­tro­ver­sy” is excerpt­ed from an essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text includ­ing more images and end­notes, please click here. Sub­scrip­tions to this site are free. You will receive reg­u­lar notices of new posts as pub­lished. Just scroll to SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW. Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Boxing, 1911

In Feb­ru­ary a Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty pan­el of four, all shar­ing the same opin­ions, brand­ed Win­ston Churchill an over­rat­ed racist impe­ri­al­ist. The British Empire, one speak­er added, was worse than the Third Reich. In March, Pol­i­cy Exchange and the Churchill Project pub­lished a point by point rebut­tal by Andrew Roberts and Zewdi­tu Gebrey­ohanes. One of the pan­elists replied in The Guardian, with a new accu­sa­tion: “In 1911, Churchill banned inter­ra­cial box­ing match­es so white fight­ers would not be seen los­ing to black ones.”

The cit­ed source, Pro­fes­sor Neil Carter, did not actu­al­ly make that state­ment. Carter wrote that Churchill as Home Sec­re­tary was pres­sured by “estab­lish­ment fig­ures” and declared one box­ing match ille­gal. The action “act­ed as prece­dent for the Home Office and was used in the years to come to ban any high-pro­file fight between white and black boxers.”

Churchill was involved in box­ing only in 1911, but the episode does illu­mi­nate his 20 months at the Home Office. (There were many inter­ra­cial box­ing match­es in Eng­land at that time, but no oth­er cham­pi­onship match­es.) Read­ers may judge what the facts say about Churchill’s involve­ment in the British ban against black cham­pi­onship boxers.

Johnson vs. Wells

In Sep­tem­ber 1911, Lan­cashire pro­mot­er James White announced a cham­pi­onship box­ing match at Earl’s Court, Lon­don on Octo­ber 2nd. It pit­ted the world heavy­weight title­hold­er, African-Amer­i­can Jack John­son, against Bil­ly Wells, the British con­tender. A purse of £8000 ($800,000 today) would be split 75% for the cham­pi­on, 25% for the challenger.

Con­tro­ver­sy erupt­ed, though the British Isles were rel­a­tive­ly free of race antag­o­nism. Lord Stan­hope declared it wrong for whites to attack blacks and vice-ver­sa, fear­ing reper­cus­sions in the colonies, who­ev­er won. He said the match might cause “a breach of the peace, cit­ing con­tem­po­rary events elsewhere.

Dis­al­low­ing a box­ing match, accord­ing to this argu­ment, was a ques­tion of how to pro­ceed in a tense sit­u­a­tion, not whether one race was supe­ri­or in the box­ing ring. After many weary years and two wars, Britain had cre­at­ed the Union of South Africa. How would the match go down with the touchy Boers, who were increas­ing­ly dom­i­nat­ing that gov­ern­ment? Rev­erend F.B. Mey­er of Regent’s Park Bap­tist Church expand­ed the argu­ment: “God knows there is hor­ror enough in the South­ern States of Amer­i­ca, trou­ble enough between our­selves, the set­tlers, in South Africa and the black population….”

Piling on

Such opin­ions reflect­ed cur­rent events. In 1910, Jack John­son had defeat­ed for­mer heavy­weight box­ing cham­pi­on James L. Jef­fries in Reno, Neva­da. After­ward, race riots had bro­ken out in the U.S., a sor­ry episode in the country’s his­to­ry. On the pos­i­tive side, Johnson’s box­ing had encour­aged black Amer­i­cans. Reno caused poet William War­ing Cuney to write his poem “My Lord, What a Morning.”

Rev. Mey­er had no record of prej­u­dice and had pre­vi­ous­ly espoused black ini­tia­tives in Lon­don. But he feared vio­lence fol­low­ing a John­son-Wells match. Var­i­ous bish­ops, head mas­ters, MPs, lord may­ors, and Baden-Pow­ell of the Boy Scouts agreed. Some object­ed to pay­ing men vast sums of mon­ey for bru­tal­iz­ing each other.

The ques­tion was whether to allow a match which peo­ple ought not to inter­pret divi­sive­ly and yet in fact would. The police, “keen­ly alive to the fact that such match­es often degen­er­ate into fights, which break the bounds of legal­i­ty, [warned] the orga­niz­ers of their per­son­al lia­bil­i­ty.” Lord Lons­dale, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Sport­ing Club, thought the con­test lop­sided. Johnson’s 75% share of the purse, he said, showed that he was three times bet­ter than Wells.

Then there was a con­trac­tu­al objec­tion. Jack John­son had signed a con­tract to appear at London’s Hip­po­drome dur­ing the Earl’s Court match. John­son claimed he had can­celled that con­tract, although the Vari­ety The­atres Con­trol Asso­ci­a­tion dis­agreed and filed for breach.

Champion and challenger

boxing
Jack John­son (r) inscribed this pho­to of him shak­ing hands with “Fire­man” Jim Fly­nn after sign­ing a con­tract to box for the World Cham­pi­onship in 1912. Fly­nn didn’t lay a glove on him. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Jack John­son, the “Galve­ston Giant,” was a col­or­ful char­ac­ter who moti­vat­ed both sup­port­ers and detrac­tors. He enjoyed fine din­ing, tai­lored clothes, lav­ish gifts to friends, and fast cars. (Stopped for speed­ing, which in these days required pay­ing one’s fine on the spot, he hand­ed the offi­cer a $100 bill. The police­man said he couldn’t make change. John­son told him to keep it, since he’d be com­ing back at the same speed.)

John­son was one of the first ath­letes to make mon­ey with endorse­ments and name­sake busi­ness­es. He opened two “black and tan” deseg­re­gat­ed night clubs. He also devel­oped crit­ics. Civ­il rights leader Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton  said it was “unfor­tu­nate that a man with mon­ey should use it in a way to injure his own peo­ple…. Johnson’s actions did not meet my per­son­al approval and I am sure they do not meet with the approval of the col­ored race.”

By con­trast “Bom­bardier” Bil­ly Wells was lit­tle known. He began box­ing as a sol­dier in the Roy­al Artillery in 1906. Decid­ing to go pro­fes­sion­al, he left the Army and took the British heavy­weight title 1911. No one thought he could beat Jack Johnson.

Enter Churchill

Rev. Mey­er gath­ered sig­na­tures for a “memo­r­i­al” to Home Sec­re­tary Churchill, ask­ing him to stop the fight. Young Win­ston was vis­it­ing the King and Prime Min­is­ter Asquith in Scot­land, where Asquith was offer­ing him a post he craved: the Admi­ral­ty. In his last month at the Home Office, the last thing he need­ed was furor over a box­ing match.

Solic­i­tor-Gen­er­al Sir John Simon offered to short-cir­cuit the con­tro­ver­sy: deny John­son entry to Eng­land. Churchill replied that John­son had every right to come. He promised to give the memo­r­i­al “close atten­tion.” The Galve­ston Giant was deter­mined. “We have signed to box under NSC rules,” he declared. “If they stop this fight, Eng­land can­not claim again she is the nation that allows fair play.” John­son arrived in Lon­don on Sep­tem­ber 23rd.

The next day the Home Office declared the fight “ille­gal, as a breach of the peace and counter to the best inter­ests of the nation and empire.” But as The Sport­ing News record­ed, this was not the final word:

On first reading…it would appear that Mr. Churchill had vetoed the con­test. But we have offi­cial author­i­ty for say­ing that such is not the case. The Home Sec­re­tary has shift­ed the real respon­si­bil­i­ty for the deci­sion which shall set­tle whether the match is to go on or not to the shoul­ders of the Bow Street mag­is­trate. It not as a judi­cial author­i­ty, but as the head of the depart­ment respon­si­ble for law and order in this coun­try, that Mr. Churchill has ruled that “what is con­tem­plat­ed is ille­gal.” He gives no rea­sons for com­ing to this decision…

Jack Johnson as barrister

John­son, Wells and pro­mot­er White were charged with “aid­ing, coun­selling, abet­ting to com­mit a breach of the peace.” John­son act­ed as his own attor­ney. Cross-exam­in­ing Police Super­in­ten­dent Dun­can Mclntyre, he showed him­self as good a lawyer as he was a box­er. The dia­logue reminds me of a Joe Pesci cross-exam­in­i­na­tion in My Cousin Vin­ny:

John­son: “Are you famil­iar with the Mar­quess of Queens­ber­ry rules?”
McIn­tyre: “No, not very familiar.”
John­son: “How do you know that if John­son and Mr. Wells box on Octo­ber 2 there will be a breach of the peace?”
McIn­tyre: “I say I appre­hend there will be a breach of the peace.”
John­son: “Have you ever seen a box­ing contest?”
McIn­tyre: “No.”
John­son: “You have no idea what they are?”
McIn­tyre: “No.”
John­son: “The wit­ness may go: I am through.”

As John­son embar­rassed McIn­tyre, England’s High Court grant­ed an injunc­tion pre­vent­ing the Earl’s Court lessees, and James White, from hold­ing the fight. The court said the box­ing match would go against the terms of the lease, which stat­ed that all exhi­bi­tions “shall be of a high class and be con­duct­ed with due regard to the main­te­nance of order…or in any way inju­ri­ous­ly affect any of the licens­es in force for the premises.”

Upshot

Churchill did not “ban inter­ra­cial box­ing match­es so white fight­ers would not be seen los­ing to black ones.” Nor did he ini­ti­ate the John­son-Wells con­tro­ver­sy. As Home Sec­re­tary, he recalled what had occurred in Reno, the prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions of which he may have had in view. His­to­ry does not give us doc­u­men­ta­tion of his motivations—only of mul­ti­ple and con­flict­ing motives of those around him, and the deci­sion he issued.

One may fault his “exec­u­tive rul­ing” as slough­ing off the judi­cial deci­sion to the courts. Their deci­sions, as Pro­fes­sor Carter not­ed, offered a prece­dent for lat­er Home Sec­re­taries to stop white-black cham­pi­onship bouts, an injus­tice to black box­ers. Iron­i­cal­ly, John­son in his day con­tributed to the dearth of black chal­lengers by pre­fer­ring white oppo­nents because, he said, there was more mon­ey in it.

The new Union of South Africa “made every­body ner­vous,” wrote There­sa Rund­st­edtler, even though “colour feel­ing was still large­ly unknown in British Isles. The British lib­er­al con­cept of impe­r­i­al cit­i­zen­ship marked by civ­i­liza­tion, rather than col­or, seemed inap­plic­a­ble, if not naïve, in this mod­ern context.”

Retrospective

Jack John­son, who had once hoped to live in Britain, was out­raged: “You are fun­ny peo­ple, you Eng­lish, I can­not make you out at all. You call the black man your broth­er; you say he is equal with you; that we’re all one fam­i­ly. I must say you’ve got a queer way of show­ing your broth­er­ly feel­ings.” The UK did not lift its cham­pi­onship col­or bar until 1948.

Not all box­ing was like this. Indeed, African-Amer­i­can Joe Louis was famous for his 1938 defeat of Max Schmel­ing, a Ger­man who claimed that as an Aryan he could not be defeat­ed. Louis went on to an unpar­al­leled streak as World Heavy­weight Cham­pi­on from 1937 to 1949, admired by school­boys white and black, includ­ing this writer.

Jack John­son held his box­ing title until 1915. In 1913 he was arrest­ed on spu­ri­ous charges and sen­tenced to a year in jail. He broke bail and lived abroad, until vol­un­tar­i­ly sur­ren­der­ing in 1920. After a year in prison, he resumed his col­or­ful career, even became a record­ing star.

Flam­ing out with a bang in 1945, the 67-year-old Galve­ston Giant reen­tered the ring with an old rival to help sell war bonds. He’d once said the U.S. nev­er gave him a square deal, but he gave the U.S. a square deal when she was threat­ened in the Sec­ond World War. The fol­low­ing year John­son died in North Car­oli­na. Refused ser­vice at a seg­re­gat­ed din­er, he’d dri­ven away angri­ly and crashed his car.

Posthu­mous attempts were made to par­don Jack’s 1913 con­vic­tion. In 2018, fol­low­ing the urg­ings of Mike Tyson, Har­ry Reid and John McCain, Don­ald Trump grant­ed John­son a pres­i­den­tial par­don. Cyn­ics said it was the only thing they all agreed about. If so, it was a good thing.

Acknowledgement 

Thanks to Madelin Evans of the Churchill Archives Cen­tre for kind assis­tance in research.

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