Len Johnson features in our Hidden Figures online series, bringing to life the stories of under-the-radar sporting pioneers throughout Black History Month
Wednesday 28 October 2020 15:24, UK
Ask anyone who has climbed into a competitive boxing ring and pulled on a pair of gloves, and they will tell you the same thing – it is the loneliest sport in the world.
No matter how loud the crowd may be, or the interventions of the referee, it is simply you and your opponent. And no-one else can help.
For Len Johnson, this was also the case throughout many aspects of his life outside the ring. But his refusal to accept systemic racial discrimination he faced on a daily basis, is a story that needs to be told. Moreover, Johnson's story needs to be celebrated.
Born in 1902 in Clayton, Manchester, to an Irish mother and a father from Sierra Leone, Len was the eldest of four siblings. At 19, he got into a fight at work, so his dad Billy - previously a boxer himself - introduced him to the sport, taking him to watch a bout. Len did not show much interest initially, so it was something of a shock when his dad signed him up for a fight just a couple of weeks later.
An inexperienced and relatively unprepared Len managed a knockout win in the third round - it was to be the start of something special.
In a very short time, Johnson developed his ring craft enough to be considered a serious contender, his defensive agility making him particularly evasive, while his educated left hand was a formidable force going forward.
His big break came in 1925 when he faced reigning British middleweight champion Roland Todd in a non-title bout at King's Hall, in Manchester's famous Belle Vue sporting venue. Johnson was a worthy points winner, proving it was no fluke by repeating the feat later that year in similarly emphatic fashion. It should have automatically lead to a shot at the title.
But that was never going to happen - purely because of the colour of Johnson's skin.
Back in 1911, the ruling establishment was on edge and the prospect of black colonial subjects of the British Empire being emboldened by the sight of a black man beating a white man in a boxing ring, was a source of great anxiety as it was feared it could incite rebellion. A 'colour bar' was in place, and boxing regulations stipulated that in order to fight for a title, both fighters had to have two white parents.
Despite the injustice, Johnson had built up a large following in Manchester and was a dominant force in the middleweight division. He defeated some of the biggest names in Britain and Europe, including Ted 'Kid' Lewis, a fighter described by Mike Tyson as "probably the greatest fighter to come out of Britain". All the while, Johnson fought for equality, protesting relentlessly against the colour bar. But he was unsuccessful as it would remain in force until the late forties.
Disheartened and disillusioned with the lack of progress, Len went to fight in Australia in 1926. It was there he took on Harry Collins in Sydney, for the vacant British Empire (now Commonwealth) title, winning on points. He went on to successfully defend it twice, recording knockout wins against both Alf Stewart and Tommy Uren.
His return to Britain six months later should have been triumphant. But on arrival he discovered the boxing authorities refused to recognise his Empire title victory, despite winning it fair and square. A new champion had already been installed. The colour bar struck again.
By 1933, Johnson had had enough. He retired from competitive boxing, though he continued fighting in his own 'boxing booth' for another six years. The numbers vary according to different sources in terms of exactly how many professional fights he had, but it is certainly in excess of a hundred. Boxrec puts it at 135, with 95 wins, 36 by way of knockout.
But his fighting did not stop there. The same resilience and determination that were hallmarks of his boxing career, were to shape the rest his life, as he became a leading figure in the fight for racial equality, as well as playing an active part in his community.
By this point he was living in Manchester's Moss Side, an area where thousands of black ex-servicemen and migrant workers had chosen to settle. Manchester had become a vibrant cultural melting pot, but there were also tensions around a lack of job opportunities and low standards of housing for non-whites.
During the war, he served in the city's Civil Defence and Rescue squad, entering air-raid damaged buildings to retrieve the wounded and the dead. In 1944, he joined the Communist party of Great Britain, and in 1945 was a delegate to the 5th Pan-African congress, held in Manchester, where decisions were made that lead to the liberation of several African countries.
In 1946, he helped set up the New International Club with two white working-class friends, as a social and political space to challenge racism. Their beliefs were listed as "true internationalism; colonial liberation; the ending of racial discrimination; peace".
When a Manchester shipping company attempted to sack all of its black sailors, the club's membership rallied together on the streets, appealing to white sailors to stand together with their colleagues. The shipping company reversed its decision.
The club's leadership also managed to cancel a policy to segregate black and white unemployed workers in the city's Labour Exchange queues.
In 1953, Johnson wanted to buy a round of drinks for his friends. They walked into The Old Abbey TapHouse on the Greenheys estate, but the landlord refused to serve them. They were all thrown out, and the police were called.
At the time, another colour bar existed where black people could be refused entry to pubs, bars and restaurants, while property landlords could refuse to rent to particular immigrants.
Incensed, Johnson enlisted the help of the Lord Mayor of Manchester, city councillors, and the Bishop of Manchester. Three days later he went back to the pub with over two hundred supporters - black and white - to demonstrate against the colour bar. Eventually, the ban was revoked, and Johnson was invited in to have a drink, even though he was tee-total.
The pub still stands, as does its reverence for Johnson's tireless campaigning. A display on one of the walls shows a collection of newspaper cuttings that chronicle Johnson's famous visit. Every year, around this time, locals gather to recall and celebrate his activism and community spirit, as they all enjoy a 'drink for Len'.
Johnson died in September 1974, aged 71, having seen out his days in typically humble fashion, working as a bus and truck driver.
As far as his boxing legacy is concerned, he remains the British Empire's uncrowned champion. But as a fighter for racial equality and civil rights, it is hard to quantify how big an impact one man has had on the lives of so many people. And yet today, so very few have heard of him.
A campaign is growing in support to have a statue of Johnson erected, somewhere in the city of Manchester. Goodness knows, he deserves it.
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