In the 1920s he was one of Britain’s best known boxers following a string of victories both at home and abroad. Modest and affable, crowds would gather outside his Manchester home as he made his way to his latest bout in an awaiting taxi. But middleweight master Len Johnson was to remain an uncrowned champion thanks to a ban on black fighters contesting title fights.
Backed by the government, the boxing regulatory board’s notorious rule 24 stipulated that boxers competing for the championship belt had to have two white parents – ruling out Johnson whose father was from West Africa.
As a result, his name does not appear in the official boxing hall of fame and he has all but faded from view.
‘He was basically ignored,’ says former amateur boxer Rob Howard, author of a just-published biography on Johnson.
‘I have read and re-read the record books and you can’t find any mention of him. If you do it is as usually as a footnote to someone else’s boxing career, often someone he defeated.’
The book Len Johnson and the Colour Bar: Britain’s Uncrowned Champion is an indictment of the boxing establishment’s dogged determination to keep black boxers from the reaching the top of the game, even forbidding them to fight in prestigious venues like the Albert Hall.
It is also a tribute to a brilliant boxer and local hero who, though bitterly disappointment by his treatment at the hands of the authorities, ended his days trying to fight social injustice and racism as a prominent member of the Manchester Communist Party.
‘Len Johnson was one of the truly legendary boxers and figures of his era,’ says Howard. ‘His achievements in the ring rate him with the very best of the British middleweights and if there is any justice, his name and reputation should never be forgotten.’
Len Benker Johnson was born in the working class Clayton area of Manchester in 1912, the eldest of four children. His mother Margaret hailed from Ireland and his father, Bill, was a seaman from Sierra Leone who had arrived in England in 1897 via Liverpool.
Although Johnson senior had fought professionally, his mild mannered son did not appear to share his enthusiasm for the sport and had limited success in small local competitions. When he was 19, during a strike at the iron foundry where he worked, he was persuaded to approach a fairground boxing booth in which members of the public were invited to fight resident fighters, a popular form of entertainment at the time. Sensing the shy young man’s talent, the owner decided to take him on as a member of his team.
Johnson’s fighting skills rapidly improved and when his ring career proper was launched a few months later he secured more victories than defeats and was being invited to fight in continental Europe.
In 1925, he hit the big time when he defeated Roland Todd, the reigning British middleweight champion, in a non-title bout on points, repeating the feat in a rematch.
Noted for his clever defensive skills, he steadily began to dominate the middleweight division with impressive victories over leading British and European middle and light heavyweights of the period.
These wins should have automatically earned him the right to a title contest, but the colour bar operated by the sport’s overseers, the National Sports Council and the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC), ruled this out.
Fed up with the attitude of boxing officialdom in Britain, Johnson spent six months in Australia in 1926, where he won the British Empire middleweight championship. But when he got back to England, he discovered that his title was not recognised by the boxing authorities, who awarded it to someone else.
Regarded by boxing fans as Britain’s uncrowned middleweight champion Johnson, by now married with three children, was showing the sort of form to contest the world title. But this cut no ice with the BBBC, which in 1929 officially sanctioned the colour bar as rule 24, paragraph 27 of its constitution.
Johnson was even barred from the fight game’s most prestigious venues, the Café Royal and the Royal Albert Hall in London, even though he could have easily filled both, such was his popularity.
Completely disillusioned, he told the Sporting Chronicle in 1931, ‘Where ever there is big money I am kept out of [these venues]. The prejudice against colour has prevented me from getting a championship fight. I feel therefore there is no use whatsoever going on with the business.’
‘Johnson was like a voice in the wilderness,’ remarks Howard, a retired secondary school teacher. ‘While promoters were happy to feature him in their shows because he was such a crowd puller, they were less keen to join his campaign against the colour bar, fearing retribution from the powerful boxing authorities.’
Johnson did eventually get to fight in the Albert Hall thanks to the efforts of a maverick promoter. That 1932 fight was a rematch against Cornishman Len Harvey, the prospective world title challenger, whom Johnson had defeated earlier. Much to the chagrin of the BBBC, it was headlined as the unofficial middleweight championship.
Johnson lost and never really managed to regain his form. Plagued by mounting health worries, he retired in 1933 to go on the road with his own boxing booth.
Although he had not been particularly vociferous about the treatment he suffered, he found a strong political voice later on in life.
This may have been due to his connections with the singer and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson whom he met in 1930 after a concert appearance in Manchester. Robeson had heard about the boxer’s plight and gave the despondent Johnson some words of encouragement.
Johnson later wrote, ‘He drew me a picture of his fight for recognition. He pointed out that my job was fighting and that if I could fight in the ring I ought to be able to fight outside it. I took his words to heart.’
It was to be the beginning of a longstanding friendship and the two corresponded by letter for 30 years. When the US authorities withdrew Robeson’s passport during the McCarthy witch-hunts, Johnson became a leading sponsor of the Let Paul Robeson Sing Committee to get it restored.
By this time Johnson had joined the Communist Party, for which he unsuccessfully contested six local elections between 1947 and 1962. A well-known public speaker and campaigner who personally took up the cases of those who had suffered injustice, he was deemed a subversive whose public appearances were monitored by police.
He was also secretary and a founder member of the New Internationalist Society, a Manchester-based organisation formed to combat racism. And among those who were frequent guests at his Moss Side home during 1940s were leading African nationalists like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Jomo Kenyetta of Kenya who were living in the UK at the time.
He died in 1974 following a prolonged period of steadily deteriorating health. But at least he lived to see a new generation of black boxers become champions in their own right following the lifting of the colour bar in 1947.‘There was a new mood of social consciousness both in Britain and its colonies and the post-war Labour government leaned heavily on the boxing authorities to have it removed,’ explains Howard.
It was too late for Johnson but just in time for Randolph Turpin, a black boxer from Leamington Spa who quickly rose through the ranks to become world middleweight champion in 1951.
Len Johnson and the Colour Bar: Britain’s Uncrowned Champion is published by Rob Howard, Stockport, Cheshire, UK (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Black History 365/Spring 2009/ www.black-history-month.co.uk