Joe Louis (Barrow), born in LaFayette, Alabama in 1914, is remembered for a few things; namely, being the hardest-punching heavyweight to ever step a ring. But, there was so much more to this complex man — the grandson of slaves, born in a shanty, who rose to gain fame, influence, and be widely considered the first black America hero.
Louis spent the first dozen years of his life in rural Alabama. But, his family were intimidated and eventually pushed out of the state by the resurgent and vicious Klan heyday of the 1920s. They would relocate to Detroit in the midst of the Great Migration, a diaspora of America’s southern black population to its northern cities. Alabama’s loss was Detroit’s gain.
Though depression hit the Barrows hard, Ford Motors was a saving grace for the new emigres. And with the prodding of an involved, strong mother, Joe would never turn to the crime that surrounded him, instead channeling his energy into boxing — an endeavor of which his mother greatly disapproved.
Parental disappointment aside (Mama Barrow wanted Joe to be a violinist), Joe began his boxing career at the age of 17 at the famous Brewster Street Rec center. He was not naturally a tour de force. Louis was unpolished and had to work hard and spend a long time as an amateur to make a name for himself, suffering setbacks to go with his highs.
But, eventually his reputation at Brewster Street (and a 50-3 record), caught the eye of the boxing world, as numerous promoters and managers sought to sign him. In the first of what would be many unconventional life moves, Louis settled on a little-known black bookie in Detroit named John “Roxy” Roxborough to manage him...and he had a Jewish promoter at a time in the country’s history where Jews were despised as an insular population.
Louis’ reasoning was simple: he wanted to prevent being exploited, as happened to so many black boxers during the era:
[Roxborough] told me about the fate of most black fighters, ones with white managers, who wound up burned-out and broke before they reached their prime. The white managers were not interested in the men they were handling but in the money they could make from them. They didn’t take the proper time to see that their fighters had a proper training, that they lived comfortably, or ate well, or had some pocket change. Mr. Roxborough was talking about Black Power before it became popular.
Unfortunately, that faith Louis placed in managers was never rewarded. Throughout his career, Joe would be fleeced time and again.
Though talented, Louis had a hard time getting a title shot in an era that had just witnessed the controversial reign of Jack Johnson. To get to the big-time, Louis would have to play nice with White America:
His management team created a media campaign featuring Joe as an All-American, clean cut, clean-living and modest fighter in a sea of scoundrels. He was never photographed with white women, never gloating over a fallen opponent and never engaged in any shady dealings. As such, he was not threat to white sensibilities of the day.
It turns out that it worked. And it worked because it wasn’t even a persona. Louis was an affable, well-liked, clean-cut and clean-living, All-American guy.
The promotion landed him a 13-fight exclusive deal, with the biggest fight by far happening when Louis knocked out Mussolini’s pet and former heavyweight champ Primo Carnera.
With that 6th round knockout of Carnera, White America’s resistance to Louis began to fade, and this proxy victory against authoritarianism earned him the respect of Americans. They began to christen him with many names, and Louis evolved into the dominant force eventually known as the Brown Bomber.
It would not be Louis’ last punch against authoritarianism either.
In 1938, sporting a 27-0 record, he faced a much older, much-more disciplined fighter at the Garden: Germany’s Max Schmeling. It was supposed to be a tune-up before a title fight against Cinderella Man, James Braddock. But, after a full 12 rounds of trading haymakers, the better conditioned and better prepared Schmeling knocked Louis out.
It wasn’t just a setback for blacks in America, or even for Louis personally. It was a loss felt by Americans against an increasingly-despised Nazi regime. The bad guys won.
Said Langston Hughes:
I walked down Seventh Avenue and saw grown men weeping like children, and women sitting in the curbs with their head in their hands. All across the country that night when the news came that Joe was knocked out, people cried.
Louis still got his title shot though, and in the 8th round knocked out Braddock to claim the heavyweight title. With that title, he had also secured a proxy victory for America’s underclass.
Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years, even before he became champion, thousands of Black Americans on relief or W.P.A., and poor, would throng out into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe’s one-man triumphs. No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions – or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too.
In his second title defense, Louis would get a chance at redemption. It was yet another surrogate political battle. The Brown Bomber faced Nazi Germany’s Max Schmeling again. The fight was hyped across both sides of the Atlantic, with Schmeling being portrayed as an exemplar of Aryan superiority, while Louis was hyped as the defender of American virtue.
The rematch was not remotely like the epic clash the men had fought in their first bout. Louis, having decided to train and take Schmeling seriously, teed off on the giant Tueton early and often. Schmeling was knocked down more times (3) than punches-landed (2).
It was over in one round:
The poor black guy with a black manager and Jewish promoter had won. And, even if ever so brief, that victory was a brief band-aid on all of the societal divisions in America.
Because, at the end of the day, Louis was still one of us; White Hat vs. Black Hat is a powerful mythology.
Neither Louis nor Schmeling set out to be avatars for opposing ideologies. They were caught up in a story far bigger than boxing and had little choice but to play the roles assigned to them by history. Maybe the outcome was an omen. Maybe it was just a boxing match that was won by the better fighter.
Whatever the story, Louis-Schmeling II stands out among millions of boxing matches, still celebrated as a special moment in time when there was no doubt that the good guy had won, even though the enemy really wasn’t the man in the other corner
This is when the interesting part of Louis’ life begins. In 1941, Joe decided he wanted to help break the Nazi stranglehold across Europe. Though the US Army was still segregated, Louis volunteered for service and was assigned to a cavalry unit in Kansas.
He did not see combat, serving instead in agitprop and administrative roles. But Louis’ service impacted the war in so many other ways. First, he met another young soldier who would become his lifelong friend: Jackie Robinson. As a one-man wrecking crew, Louis’ power alone got Jackie’s officer training approved. Later the helped move other qualified black candidates into the officer candidate school training; applications that had been ignored, denied outright or slow-rolled. The name “Joe Louis” had clout, and he used it for all it was worth.
The second thing he did for the war effort was to serve as a collective cheerleader for the rightness of America’s effort. When asked why he volunteered, Louis’ simple response would become a national rallying cry and cement his legacy among the country at-large: “We’ll win, ’cause we’re on God’s side.”
If there were ever any questions, they were laid to rest. Joe was an American hero now; not just a black hero or a sports hero. Private Joe Louis would be honorably discharged as Sergeant Joe Louis in 1945.
Joe retired from boxing in 1949. Louis was never the most earnest student of the sport. He had a lot of height, length, god-given talent, and one of the strongest punches in the game. Those had always gotten him by.
But Joe’s time in the spotlight was far from over.
Louis had always been an avid golfer. In 1940 he made an appearance at a PGA amateur event. The next year, he would begin sponsoring the Joe Louis Open in Detroit, an event for promising young black golfers. In 1951, the same year he retired from fighting, Louis finally achieved one of his life’s ambitions, winning the UGA title — the “Negro national title.” That crown earned him an invitation to the San Diego Open in 1952.
But, like so much of public life at the time, the PGA was a whites-only establishment. Still, Joe was able to earn a sponsor’s exemption for placement into the field. And, on January 16, 1952, Joe Louis became the first black golfer at a PGA event. For the next decade, Louis would use his considerable clout to lean on the PGA to eliminate its exclusionary clause. In 1961, his efforts paid off, and the PGA became the last major integrated professional sport.
Joe Louis passed away on in 1981, still a legend in the national consciousness.
He was an interesting and complicated man, one who worked within the systems to change the systems, be they the Army, boxing, or golf. He was a tireless voice for integration in public life, even if that voice was a quiet but powerful whisper into the right ears. Joe Louis was far from being a nihilist wanting to destroy institutions; to the contrary, he was first and foremost an American patriot. Because he loved the nation, its ideals, he worked so very hard to bring justice to its institutions, to move America in line with her stated values.
Said the legendary Jimmy Cannon: “Joe Louis was a credit to his race — the human race.”
That, my friends, is a man you can be proud to call your own.
There is a postscript to this story that is fascinating: Louis, the victim of bad business deals and managerial exploitation throughout his boxing career, retired from the ring deeply in hock to the IRS, with barely any assets to his name. But, he could not move towards a golfing career and trying to integrate the PGA without the financial resources boxing provided. However, he received help in retiring from boxing, and was able to concentrate on golf, by generous patronage from an unexpected quarter: none other than Max Schmeling. Like so many other people in Louis’ life, Joe had earned Schmeling’s deep respect and eventual friendship.
While this is not Louis’ epitaph, it may as well be:
“Joe’s not broke,” his wife Martha had insisted during her husband’s financial traumas. “He’s rich — rich with friends. If he said he needed a dollar, a million people would send him a dollar and he’d be a millionaire.”
When Joe Louis passed away, Max Scmeling would be an honorary pallbearer at his friend’s funeral.
34 Days until Football Season