Granada Reports, the local news programme for ITV in my area (the North West of England), had a little piece last night on Len Johnson, a Clayton-born professional middle-weight boxer from 1921 to 1933 who is sadly somewhat forgotten today. The film, quite rightly, took the view that Johnson’s legacy needs to be remembered and reported that their are calls for a statue of the fighter to be erected in his hometown of Manchester. But just why is it that Len Johnson forgotten in the first place, and just what did Granada Reports also forgot to mention in their broadcast last night? This post will attempt to answer these questions.
Johnson was born in 1902 to Bill Johnson, a seaman from Sierra Leone, and a white Mancunian-Irish mother, Margaret Maher. In the 1920s, Johnson – like many fighters – earned his spurs fighting in boxing booths at local fairs and would subsequently come to own his own travelling booth throughout the 1930s. It was whilst on strike from his role as a foundryman at an engineering firm in 1921 that his father – who had also been a boxer and served as his manager throughout his career and can be seen with his son in the photo below – entered him for his first professional bout; a third round knock out of Jerry Hogan. A year later saw Johnson fight in Copenhagen, the first of many overseas fights. Johnson’s career would see him fight in Ireland, Belgium, France and Italy as well as an extensive tour of Australia in 1926 where he won and successfully defended the British Empire Middleweight title (the Australian version of the British Middleweight belt). It’s important to remember that these were countries that could only exist in the dreams of the average working class Mancunian of the day. Indeed, if he’d stayed a foundryman it is unlikely that Johnson himself would have ever travelled so freely.
In 1932, Len Johnson fought Cornish fighter Len Harvey at the Royal Albert Hall. The bout was billed as a fight for the actual British Middleweight championship title, but the British Boxing Board of Control refused to recognise it as such, because of the ‘colour bar’. And here is the rub; despite beating some of the best British and foreign fighters in his professional career, Johnson was never allowed to fight in his own country for any official British title simply because of the colour of his skin. In short, because of the racist, bigoted views of the establishment, Len Johnson’s legacy as a champion was robbed from him.
During Johnson’s day, the British boxing rulebook deemed that only White boxers whose parentage was 100% Caucasian were allowed to compete for titles – a discriminatory view that was widely supported by politicians (no doubt acutely aware of their colonial stranglehold in Africa and India) as it was commonly believed that the spectacle of a Black boxer defeating a White one and being lauded could incite racial rebellion. This meant that Johnson, as a mixed race fighter, could not be awarded the commonwealth title he so richly deserved. Indeed, that title was subsequently given to a Scottish fighter instead. This colour bar on British boxing was not lifted until after the Second World War, by which time Len Johnson had long since retired.
It’s important to remember that the colour bar was apparent in all walks of life in the UK at that time. Segregation and discrimination was as much an accepted, lawfully binding part of British life as it was in the US or in apartheid South Africa. For example, publicans had the right to refuse to serve Black or Asian customers in their establishments, a situation that Johnson himself memorably came across in one pub, Greenheys Old Abbey Taphouse, in 1953. Having been refused a drink, Johnson – perhaps with the sense of injustice he still felt from never being given the title he deserved – organised a protest outside the pub. For three days some two hundred people, Black and White, attended his demonstration. Faced with such a crowd, the now beleaguered landlord had no option but to overturn the licensee ban. Shamefaced, he invited Johnson in and shared a non-alcoholic drink – for Johnson was teetotal – with the man who had so publically forced him to see the error of his ways. It is widely considered that Len Johnson’s victorious actions here, combined with Britain’s growing reliance on a commonwealth migrant workforce to help rebuild and repair postwar society, helped to finally bring about an end to the racially discriminatory practices of the colour bar in the UK.
Following his retirement in the 1930s, Johnson briefly tried out for a career as a professional wrestler, but the outbreak of World War Two saw him turn his back on fighting. He never again entered the ring either as a boxer or a grappler, and he sold his boxing booth too. He enlisted in the Civil Defence Service, serving the home front in Manchester during the Blitz as part of the Heavy Rescue Squad; a Civil Defence unit made up skilled tradesmen such as builders, plumbers and electricians, who helped clear up and stabilise the devastation created by the nightly bombing raids made by the Luftwaffe to allow the rescue and treatment of trapped and injured civilians. It was towards the end of the war, in 1944, that Johnson – a lifelong trade unionist – joined the Communist Party of Great Britain – something that Granada Reports did not mention last night.
Len Johnson’s political activism deserves just as much recognition as his achievements in the boxing ring. In the early 1930s, Johnson had become friends with the great Paul Robeson and it is understood that the American singer, actor and left wing political activist had convinced him to join the party. In 1945, Johnson attended a meeting of the fifth Pan-African Congress at Chorlton-upon-Medlock town hall. The conference debated topics such as ‘The Colour Problem in Britain’, ‘Oppression in South Africa’ and ‘The Problems in the Caribbean’ and the foundation for anti-colonial movements within the British Empire were thrashed out and developed by delegates such as Johnson. Around this time, he also co-founded the New International Society in Manchester, which provided a vehicle for civil rights campaigns both home and abroad (regularly petitioning for equality for Black people in the US, South Africa and Britain’s colonies), as well as a social club for local Black communities. In 1948, when six African-Americans were found guilty by an all-white jury for the murder of an elderly White shopkeeper in Trenton, New Jersey and subsequently sentenced to death in a hotly contested trial, Len Johnson and the New International Society rallied to the cause, protesting the innocence of the ‘Trenton Six’ by staging a rally and benefit concert at Belle Vue’s King’s Hall in May 1949, attended by 10,000 people and featuring Paul Robeson, as the six men’s legal team, funded by Communist Parties worldwide, secured a series of retrials.
In serving the interests of the Black working class communities of Manchester’s Moss Side, Johnson’s role as a community leader saw him begin to become more and more engaged with the democratic process of local politics and he would subsequently stand for election to the Moss Side East ward as a Communist Party candidate a total of six times between 1947 and 1962. Though he was never successful, Johnson remained undeterred and believed totally in the cause. He never forgot his roots in boxing either, penning a column on the sport for party newspaper The Daily Worker for several years. Plagued by ill health in later years, Len Johnson died at the age of 71 in Oldham on the 28th September, 1974. Whilst I support the campaign’s efforts to get a statue erected in Manchester solely because I feel we need to recognise more BAME figures, I don’t feel the statue should simply be because of his boxing prowess. Len Johnson achieved more, much more, than that in his life as I hope you will agree having now read this article.