Journal of Byron Williams Winston Salem
On October 26, 1970, when Muhammad Ali returned to the ring after a three-year exile to fight Jerry Quarry, his local man Drew “Bundini” Brown shouted before the fight, “Ghost in the house, champion! Jack Johnson is here!
After recently watching award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary on Ali, having also seen Johnson’s Burns treatment years earlier, I too left feeling, just like Brown, “Ghost in the house!”
In the larger context, separated by more than half a century, Ali’s story was a continuation of Johnson’s saga. It can be concluded that Ali placed a point where Johnson left a semicolon.
Johnson held the heavyweight boxing title from 1908 to 1915, the first black man to do so. But it was Johnson’s shameless style outside the ring that infuriated him with the mainstream white audience. Johnson was arrested and later convicted of violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transport of a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
It was a racially motivated law directed almost specifically against Johnson, who had many relationships, including marriage, with white women. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump posthumously pardoned Johnson’s criminal conviction.
But Johnson aided and abetted his legal troubles by getting ahead of cultural norms, openly flaunting his interracial relationship with a nation that couldn’t conceive of a non-white heavyweight boxing champion, let alone one engaged in race relations. Ali, on the other hand, has openly demonstrated his attachment to the black Muslim religion.