In the Red Corner

Denied a shot at the title because of his skin color, Manchester boxer Len Johnson turned to labor militancy and radical politics.

Len Johnson in 1926. Wikimedia Commons

From Nigel Benn and Lennox Lewis to Anthony Joshua and Frank Bruno, the history of black boxers in Britain is rich, and often celebrated. But that hasn’t been the case for everyone.

In the 1920s a black boxer from Manchester enjoyed enormous success, rising to become one of the best of his generation — only to have his achievements denied due to the color of his skin. He went on to become a writer, club owner, Communist leader, and a trusted friend of Paul Robeson.

Leonard Benker Johnson was born on October 22, 1902 at 12 Barnabas Street, Clayton. His father, William, was a merchant seaman from Sierra Leone who had settled in Manchester after marrying Len’s mother, Margaret — herself belonging to the enormous Irish diaspora that was then found in the slums of north Manchester.

The foggy intensity of early industrial Manchester were the surrounds of Len’s childhood, his neighborhood a crowded environment of impoverished Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. Even among this diverse group, the Johnsons were unusual. They belonged to a small black community that had established itself in the city due to the Manchester Ship Canal’s rapid expansion, which had enabled trade with Africa. Alongside Indian “lascar” labourers and Yemenis, many African seamen — such as Len’s father — married local women and established stable existences in the burgeoning metropolis.

Despite the ethnic variation of Manchester at the time, fear and hatred of “colonials” was popular in both native and immigrant communities. Prejudice against the Johnsons was deep, and often violent: throughout his entire life Len remembered the vicious treatment of his mother, who carried lifelong facial disfigurement as a result of a hateful street attack.

The Boxer

Soon after Len’s birth, the Johnson family left Manchester for Leeds, where his father established a travelling boxing booth. However, the outbreak of World War I soon brought the family back to Manchester, a global economic hub which offered more prospects for gainful employment than Yorkshire. It was during the war that Len left school and began to work in the foundry of an engineering firm.

Having shown talent in a factory floor punch-up, it was during a particularly long strike that Len’s father entered him in some bouts at a hall on the heavily working-class Ashton Old Road. To his surprise — and despite his inexperience — he won his first two matches. Though he lost the following two, the effort impressed a local boxing magnate who offered Len a full-time position as a boxer.

From this experience as a full-timer, Len turned professional as a teenager, fighting and winning as a middleweight at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall against the hotly tipped Eddie Pearson in January 1922. This was the start of a professional career which spanned eleven years and 127 fights — of which he won 92, lost 29, and drew 6.

Johnson became famous in Britain for his impressive victories, defeating European and British middleweight champion Roland Todd at Manchester’s famed Belle Vue in 1927. In the same year, he also defeated future middleweight champion Len Harvey, and rounded up the decade thrashing European middleweight champion Leone Jaccovacci in 1928 and European cruiserweight champion Michele Bonaglia in 1929.

The Color Bar

By the time of his success over Bonaglia, Len’s offensive prowess and “slippery” defense was internationally recognized. In his late twenties, he was at a peak of his ability, and would most likely have won the British middleweight championship and the world title. Indeed, in the same year he had gone on to beat California’s “Sunny” Jim Williams in a fight billed as a world title eliminator.

However, the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC), the United Kingdom’s national boxing authority, denied Len the opportunity on the basis that, despite being British, he was black.

This wasn’t Len’s first sleight at the hands of institutionally racist boxing officialdom. During a six-month tour of Australia in 1926, where he won the British Empire middleweight championship by defeating Harry Collins, he discovered that defeated Scot Tommy Milligan had been installed as Empire Champion on the basis that Len did not have two white parents.

Len Johnson with his boxers in front of his boxing booth.

This scandalous exclusion was a matter of imperial politics. Despite the long-established tradition of black boxers in Britain — including respected figures such as Bill Richmond, a boxing instructor to Lord Byron — racist attitudes towards the colonized and the desire to maintain the primacy of white Brits led to policies of official discrimination.

First, there was the insistence from segregation lobbyists, such as the Protestant clergyman Frederick Brotherton Meyer, that black people were “differently constituted” to even the best white sportsmen. White athletes, he said, did not carry the “instinctive passion” for violence that black men were genetically bestowed with, nor their ability to be “aroused to the utmost” due to their “animal development.”

Right-wingers argued that a “disposition” of black people towards ignorance and savagery would benefit them in the world of boxing, provoking anxiety from pockets of British society that black boxers may enjoy social or financial advancement from facing white audiences — or, even worse, enter into sexual relationships with white women as a result of their fame.

But there was a more direct worry — weakened control over colonial subjects. A particular flashpoint during this period was the July 1910 fight in Reno, Nevada between James L. Jeffries and the first ever African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson — an event in which Johnson emerged victorious. This moment is recorded in contemporary telegrams and reports of the colonial police as a source of major disruption across the British Empire; colonial officials noted an upsurge in anti-police violence, and bemoaned the “difficulties” in handling emboldened black subjects in the West Indies, Fiji, and South Africa.

For a nervous British establishment, the optics of black victory over the purported inherent superiority of a white opponent fed sedition. After pressure from the likes of Meyer and reactionaries in the colonial press, the British home secretary Winston Churchill banned interracial boxing matches on September 26, 1911. The BBBC enshrined this law in their constitution.

On home turf, a rigorous defense of Len was put forward by local newspapers — particularly the left-leaning Manchester Evening Chronicle, which denounced the “foolish” notion that “a man be barred from attaining the highest honours . . . merely because he happens to be coloured.” Outrage from ordinary Mancunians led to a protest delegation being sent to the BBBC’s London offices, but the national organization was not minded to confront the British government over its discriminatory laws.

Exasperated and disillusioned, Len distanced himself from the professional game. In 1931, while battling growing rheumatism and eyesight issues, he narrowly missed out to incumbent champion Len Harvey in a fight billed as being for the middleweight championship, but unrecognized by the BBBC. His final appearance in the ring was on October 12, 1933, where he chalked up one of his few defeats to Jim Winters of Edinburgh.

The Fighter

As a result of his exhaustion with this unambiguous racial discrimination, Len retired from boxing altogether. Now in retirement, he began developing talented youngsters in his own booth, as well as a reputation as an impressive writer of sharp-worded proletarian realist short stories.

Angered by his own oppression, he began to take a broader look at the world. The rise of fascism at home and abroad alarmed him. He was known to sympathize with the Spanish Republican cause; not least, one may assume, because of the number of popular sportsmen from the Manchester and Salford area who joined the International Brigades, such as the featherweight boxer Bob Goodman and Speedway motorcycle daredevil Clem Beckett — neither of whom were to return.

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Len worked in the civil defense corps. Though his actual political development during this period is unclear, it seems likely that he was galvanized by the struggle against fascism and by the prestige of the Soviet Union — as well as the opportunity to build a world free from the racism he experienced in his youth. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1944, becoming one of the tens of thousands who swelled its ranks in the period, turning it from an influential sect into a large organization that would elect two MPs — and narrowly miss out on several other seats — in the 1945 Labour victory.

Len took to all aspects of party work, and was a local delegate to the Fifth Pan-African Congress, held in his native Manchester. The Congress, organized with the purpose of establishing an international alliance to liberate black people, has been credited with creating the Pan-African Federation the following year. Principally organized by the future Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah and the former Trinidadian Communist George Padmore, the Congress attracted eighty-seven delegates, twenty-seven of whom were anti-colonial militants, nationalist luminaries, or African intellectual figures, such as Hastings Banda of Malawi, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Jaja Wachuku of Nigeria, and Dudley Thompson of Jamaica. It also hosted renowed western radicals such as W. E. B Du Bois.

The New International

The event galvanized the African liberation struggle internationally, and also served as a point of inspiration for Len and his comrades in Manchester. By 1946, the “colored” community in Manchester — centered mainly in the Moss Side quarter — had grown to approximately ten thousand. An ever-growing presence of black ex-servicemen and migrant laborers hopeful for job opportunities convinced left-wing labor movement militants in Manchester of the need to politically intervene in the new local situation. Following a discussion with close comrades Syd Booth and Wilf Charles — two white industrial workers and veterans of Spain — the three founded the New International Society.

Positioning itself as a rival to local black churches, which were derided in the club’s foundational statement as attempting to “sidetrack the growing feeling of frustration” with poor housing and unemployment problems, the club’s aim was to provide a basis for black self-organization in Manchester. The principles of the NIS were declared in the statement: “true internationalism; colonial liberation; the ending of racial discrimination; peace.”

The club is notable for hosting some of the first African and Caribbean club nights in Manchester, where young Jamaican workers taught white labor movement militants how to calypso to the backdrop of older men playing chess and singing stoker’s songs. But the mixed race, proletarian membership of the NIS also campaigned to advance the cause of subjugated colonial peoples, as well as to defend the African-American community across the Atlantic against the reactionary outrages of Jim Crow.

The club found no shortage of enthusiastic recruits, receiving an upsurge of membership applications almost immediately due to the serious political work of those involved. When the NIS leadership were informed by local supporters that the Labour Exchange was operating a system of segregated queues for unemployed black and white workers, they held meetings outside the premises and successfully overturned the policy.

Similarly, in 1946, a major shipping company operating out of Manchester attempted to sack all “colored” seamen, including many who had served the company through both world wars. A reactionary local union leadership ignored the sackings, but the NIS membership — which numbered several hundred — held street meetings appealing directly to union members, who overwhelmingly sided with their “colored” brothers and successfully halted the job losses.

At a time of growing international tension between the “two camps,” the NIS was unafraid to actively side against their government, inviting persecuted Malaysian journalists to discuss British war crimes carried out against the communist movement there. An NIS boxing tournament was held in 1948 to celebrate the Labour government’s abolition of the color bar, but there was more important, defensive battles for the club to focus on — in particular the 1948 case of six young black men sentenced to death for an alleged murder in Trenton, New Jersey.

As the case rolled on, the club invited Paul Robeson — who had admired Len since his boxing career — to perform in support of the “Trenton Six.” The concert became legendary: due to the hopelessly overflowing venue, Robeson played a second concert outside, surrounded by anxious police, to over ten thousand black and white Mancunians who could not get a ticket. Robeson and Len spoke later at an NIS-organized rally of around ten thousand people at Belle Vue, where Len enjoyed so many boxing triumphs decades earlier.

Poster for Paul Robeson’s appearance in Belle Vue in 1949.

The mutual respect was so great that, when Robeson’s passport was seized by the American authorities during the height of McCarthyism, the NIS leaders were at the forefront of the British “Let Robeson Sing” campaign. When the ban on his travel was finally overturned, he penned a thank you letter for their prominent support, assuring that Robeson would “never forget that it was the people of Manchester and of the other industrial areas of Britain who gave me the understanding of the oneness of people — a concept upon which I have based my career as an artist and citizen.”

The Legacy

Despite the respect for his work in the city, Len’s six attempts at standing for the local council as a Communist candidate were risible. The local population feared giving up the hegemony that Labour had won in Moss Side — and was also swayed by growing Cold War hostility. While working as a truck driver in later years, Len began writing a monthly boxing column for the Daily Worker, unusual at its time for the concern it showed for the welfare of retired sportsmen, the mental impacts of boxing, and the lack of decent training facilities for working-class young people.

By the early sixties, Len’s physical health was in rapid decline. He had already spent several months convalescing at a Black Sea resort in the Soviet Union. Moving out of Moss Side, he lived for years in relative anonymity and growing poverty. However, an association of former boxers discovered the precarious state he was in and aided him, dropping off groceries and even buying him a television.

When he died on September 28, 1974, Len Johnson was mourned internationally as a pioneer for equality in sports. He was also remembered as a stalwart in the local labor movement who had worked to improve race relations among the city’s working class.

But today this unique figure in the labor movement, the Manchester black community, and the worldwide struggle for peace, is largely ignored in Britain. No doubt this is in part due to his politics — which were a symbol of his refusal to be a mere victim of the society he lived in. Against a sanitized vision of black history that arrives at easy platitudes about multiculturalism and state-sanctioned “tolerance,” Len Johnson’s determination to hit back against bigotry and colonialism, fascism and capitalism, in short, against racial and economic injustice in its entirety should never be forgotten.