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Fighting for equality, in the boxing ring

Director Ken Burns talks to “Today” about his new documentaryon the life of the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson.
/ Source: TODAY

Ken Burns, director of the acclaimed and popular documentaries "The Civil War," "Baseball" and "Jazz," is back with a new story to tell. This time he focuses on Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who reigned in the early 1900s. Born to former slaves, Johnson, who eventually ended up in jail as a result of his relationships with white women, fought and beat the best boxers on both the black boxing circuit and the white.

Burns, who said he hasn't felt this excited about one of his documentaries since "The Civil War," talked with the "Today" show about “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."

"Today" show: Why were you so excited about this project?

Ken Burns: Besides the content of the film, I think it's important to say how modern, how beautiful this man is.  And how of all the characters I've ever gotten to know historically, he's the one that could be transported to the present and just fit right in. He'd be the sexiest man alive on the cover of PEOPLE magazine — [fashion maven] Cojo would be saying what a great dresser he was. He'd be on “Entertainment Tonight” every night.

"Today" show: Why have so many people not heard of Jack Johnson? He's clearly a significant historical figure and someone we should know about.

Burns: I think because he hits these nerves of some very sensitive subjects of race and sex that Americans just don't want to talk about.  We were founded under the idea that all men are created equal, but the guy who wrote those words owned 200 human beings and never saw the contradiction.

We're constantly avoiding and distorting the question of race. Jack Johnson rubs our face in it. We're also hypocritical about sex — we're both puritan and prurient at the same time. And so we vibrate very strangely about sex, and when that sex is between a black man and a white woman, then it's a hurricane and it's a troublesome thing. Jack Johnson hits these notes that we'd rather forget.

"Today" show: You say, "Johnson's story is more than the story of a tremendous athlete, or even one who broke a color line. It is the story of a man who forced America to confront its definition of freedom, and that is an issue with which we continue to struggle." How did he force America to confront its definition of freedom?

Burns: I think he decided to live his life nothing short of that of a free man in an age when the country was unwilling to accept that on the part of an African-American male. He'd read his Constitution. He knew what his rights were.  But this was a country that wasn't prepared for that and this was a disaster waiting to happen. Jack Johnson — with his will and force, what we celebrate today — was headed down a track head-on into the obstinacy of the racism of the time. And it's not just the Jim Crow South and the Ku Klux Klan — we're talking about the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times with some of the most chilling quotes.

"Today" show: What were race relations like in the early 1900s?

Burns: This was the low point for African-Americans after emancipation. More African-Americans were lynched in the first two decades of the 20th century than any other 20-year period in the history of our republic.

Johnson was one of six children born to former slaves. He received five years of formal education, yet later in his life he became an avid reader, a student of history and an admirer of Napoleon. This was a very smart man.

His parents insisted that he learn how to read and write, and that made the difference. He holds three patents with the U.S. government, he was well-read, a student of history, he was articulate, he knew what he was doing and yet he wasn't going to be "a credit to his race." He was going to be who he wanted to be. So he was a loose cannon on the deck of racial politics.

"Today" show: James Earl Jones played Jack Jefferson in the Broadway play and 1970 movie "The Great White Hope," a lightly fictionalized version of Jack Johnson. In your film, Jones said of Jack Johnson, "What I liked about Jack — he was a self-defined man. Jack didn't toe any lines. I wouldn't say that's what got him into trouble. Society was in trouble. Jack was just playing himself." How can a man who is "just playing himself" be so reviled?

Burns: The title of our film, “Unforgivable Blackness,” comes from a statement W.E.B. Dubois said about Jack Johnson. He wasn't doing anything that other white boxers and ballplayers and even statesman were doing with regard to their personal lives. It's just that Jack Johnson was unforgivably black. The problem was not with Jack Johnson, it was the hypocrisy of society.

"Today" show: In July of 1910, Congress passed the Mann Act, and the United States attorney general used this law to bring down Jack Johnson. What was the Mann Act and how was it used against Johnson?

Burns: When our country couldn't beat him in the ring, they went after him for his personal life.  And they [used] a perfectly reasonable Progressive Era piece of legislation called the Mann Act, which was never intended to regulate individual morality. It tried to stop commercialized vice. But the attorney general of the U.S. was persuaded to use this against Jack Johnson, to stop him because he couldn't be stopped in the ring. And so they went after him for his personal life. It was one thing to have a black heavyweight champion. It was another for him marry a white woman.

"Today" show: In the film, writer Stanley Crouch relates a story about someone asking Jack Johnson what it was about black guys that attracted white women to them. Johnson answered, "We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts." What did you make of that?

Burns: [Laughs] That’s exactly right. We exoticize as well as demonize the other. There's something curious about a black man, and that's what people were drawn to. Jack Johnson, with his incredibly winning personality, just exemplifies that. "Cold eels and think distant thoughts," how more romantic can you get?

"Today" show: Jack Johnson finally gets to fight fellow boxer James Jeffries on July 4, 1910. Jeffries was a white, ex-heavyweight boxing champion who had come out of retirement to fight Johnson. Johnson won and all hell broke loose. What happened?

Burns: Who knew that we had riots worse than when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated? They were across the country — cities and country, North and South, East and West. It was for the most part white-on-black violence. Whites were angry and upset that James Jeffries had lost. And they were taking it out on black people. They were also angry that blacks were celebrating Johnson's win. It's an amazing outpouring over a fight. Nothing happened in Reno, where the fight took place, but it exploded across the country.

"Today" show: Was his win over Jeffries the beginning of Johnson’s fall?

Burns: I think so, because he kept taking on, after Jeffries, more "white hopes" and beating them soundly. And then when his white wife, who was the only one of his girlfriends who wasn't a prostitute, killed herself — she came from a well-to-do family — and he took up with another white girl right away, this was just too much and everybody decided to go after him.

"Today" show: What is Jack Johnson's legacy?

Burns: It's a legacy of courage and bravery. He's not a perfect guy, but in the end we often mistakenly ask our heroes to be perfect. No hero is perfect but [instead] a strange negotiation between that person’s strengths and their weaknesses. Jack Johnson had weaknesses, but in the end I have to imagine that when Mohammed Ali's government was after him — the dark night of his soul in the 1960s, a decade we think was dedicated to civil rights — he must have taken some solace [knowing] that 55 years before, a black man in much more dangerous times had it a lot worse.

“Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" premieres January 17 and 18 on PBS.