Zeke Wilson’s §1983 Case Shows How Discrimination Comes in Various Forms

Feb 25, 2022

By Robert J. Romano, JD, LLM, St. John’s University, Senior Writer

When people hear the term racism, most think of a member or members of one race or ethinicity discriminating against a member or members of another race or ethnicity. But what does it mean when both the perpetrators and victims are of the same race or ethnic background? That leads us to the story of boxer and boxing promoter, Zeke Wilson.

Born on St. Helena Island, South Carolina in 1957, Zeke Wilson was the seventh of eight children raised by his single mother, Florence H. Wilson. From a young age, his mother instilled in him, his brothers and sisters that hard work, perseverance, and determination were qualities needed in order to make something of your life.

Zeke found sports as a way to incorporate these traits and by all accounts was a gifted athlete who played varsity football during his high school days. Not satisfied with one sport alone, Zeke began looking for other options and after watching a television program showcasing the upcoming fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, he decided then that boxing was going to be where he made his mark. “I remember watching Mohammed Ali getting ready to fight Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, in Madison Square Garden,” Zeke reminisces. “When I saw that Joe Frazier was from Beaufort (South Carolina), all of a sudden I wanted to be a fighter.”[1]

He began his quest for boxing greatness in a most unusual way – by chopping down trees and digging holes. But this was only the first step. He then put one tree in each hole and used a third as a cross beam on which he hung a sand-filled pair of old jeans to use as a punching bag. “One day a man saw me jogging home from work and stopped me and asked what I was doing,” remembers Zeke. “The man later became my first boxing manager.”[2]

Living close to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, Zeke was able to practice and hone his skills with local Marines. At the age of 16, after training with Macaulay Washburn and the All-Marine Boxing Champion, Sgt. David Robinson, Zeke took on his first serious opponent, who just so happened to be both a Golden Gloves and State Champion, during a match in Savannah, Georgia. Champion or not, Zeke recorded a first-round knockout, marking the beginning of an amateur boxing career filled with numerous honors and awards including being named the 1975 South Carolina State Champion. Being named the Palmetto State’s Champion offered Zeke the opportunity to compete in the Amateur Athletic Union Heavyweight Division Box-Off, which, after winning this event, qualified him for the U.S. Boxing Team.

After graduating from high school, Zeke spent time in Philadelphia as Joe Frazier’s sparring partner before enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. As a Marine, Zeke continued with his love of boxing by becoming a member of the Corps boxing team and in July 1979, competed successfully in the Marine Base Championship at Camp Pendleton, California. After four years of active duty, and within a week of being honorably discharged, Zeke made his professional boxing debut at Madison Square Garden.

Although his professional career as a boxer was short, Zeke remained passionate and, wanting to stay close to the sport, continued on as a manager, trainer, and promoter. It was in the role of promoter, ironically, that led Zeke to engage in his biggest fight.

In 1998, Zeke and his promoting company, Wilson Promotional Group, Inc., commenced a civil proceeding pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 against the defendants Wilbert J. McClure, William F. Pender, and Nicholas P. Manzello, alleging that the three men engaged in racial discrimination and by doing so violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The noteworthy aspect of Zeke’s §1983 claim was that, at the time, it was the first case to allege same-race discrimination that ultimately led to a federal jury award.

Summarizing Zeke’s federal complaint, the Massachusetts State Boxing Commissioner, William Pender, who was white, performed direct discriminatory acts, while the Commission Chairman, Wilbert McClure, a black man, failed to provide sufficient protection under his authority and cooperated in the unjust cancellation of a series of boxing events, an unjust cancellation that caused financial harm to both Zeke and his promoting company.[3]

As stated by Zeke himself, “I was a fight promoter and I went to Massachusetts to do a boxing event, but different bodies of the state canceled me because of the color of my skin. The state law was that it’s $5,000 for anyone who wants to come there – they have to post a bond of $5,000 to do a boxing event. I walked in there a month after Don King and he told me that he wanted me to post $10,000, (double the amount of his white boxing promoter counterparts) – so I paid the $10,000 but what he did was, he didn’t allow me to have the show, and a white individual walked in a month later and he didn’t have to pay anything. He was allowed to have his show. So, I sued him in federal court.”[4]

Zeke’s hard work, perseverance, and determination, the traits instilled in him as a child by his mother Florence, ultimately paid off. One of the first legal cases to challenge the concept of same-race discrimination came to its conclusion on September 11, 2000, when a jury, after eight days of deliberation, unanimously awarded Zeke and his boxing promotion company $160,000.00 in both compensatory and punitive damages.[5]

Following the trial, Zeke commented that, “I hope people learn to stand up for themselves. I had to. Justice is for everyone and it has to be for everyone or you’re just a nobody. We are living in a time where people are taking more away from us. If you allow people to take away your rights, then I think you’d be a fool. You have to stand up for what you believe in.”[6]

Zeke Wilson’s precedent-setting legal case is now the subject of the non-fiction book entitled The Eighth Round – a title resulting from the fact that it took eight days for the federal jury to render its decision.

[1] https://www.blufftonsun.com/story-proves-discrimination-not-always-black-and-white/

[2] https://beaufortlifestyle.com/2018/03/13/zeke-wilson-a-fighter-for-justice/

[3] https://beaufortlifestyle.com/2018/03/13/zeke-wilson-a-fighter-for-justice/

[4] https://www.wtoc.com/2020/06/16/retired-savannah-boxer-wins-legal-fight/

[5] A federal jury awarded compensatory damages in the amount of $80,000 against both McClure and Pender jointly and severally, plus punitive damages of $20,000 against McClure and $60,000 against Pender.

[6] https://beaufortlifestyle.com/2018/03/13/zeke-wilson-a-fighter-for-justice/

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