SI Vault
Chris Mead
September 16, 1985
A new book illuminates the pivotal role played by hard-hitting, gentlemanly Joe Louis in the civil rights revolution, which led to a new era of black power and black hope
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September 16, 1985

Black Hero In A White Land

A new book illuminates the pivotal role played by hard-hitting, gentlemanly Joe Louis in the civil rights revolution, which led to a new era of black power and black hope

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"...and now it looks like Joe is mad.... Louis is penetrating every block. The referee is moving in....

"Champion of the world. A Black boy.... People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas.... It would take an hour or more before the people would leave the Store and head for home. Those who lived too far had made arrangements to stay in town. It wouldn't do for a Black man and his family to be caught on a lonely country road on a night when Joe Louis had proved that we were the strongest people in the world."

Black papers published special editions on the nights of his big fights. He appeared often in advertisements: "Besides being a great fighter, Joe Louis is one of the best dressed men in America. He says, 'The last thing I do before I go into the ring is to see that MURRAY'S POMADE has my hair smooth and perfectly in place.' " The black press was obsessed with even his most mundane personal habits. A headline in December 1935 read: JOE LOUIS DOESN'T DRINK ALE OR EAT PIE; LIKES RED SHIRTS.

The black press emulated the white press in praising and promoting Louis as a well-behaved, clean-living fighter. From our present-day perspective, this exaggerated middle-class decorum and self-conscious catering to white sensibilities might be considered Uncle Tomming. But in the 1930s Louis was the only black who was a consistent winner in white America. And, in fact, even his carefully polished good-boy image could not conceal the true nature of his victories. He wasn't just defeating white men, he was beating them up. As Lawrence W. Levine, a historian and the author of Black Culture and Black Consciousness, wrote in 1977, "...with whatever degree of humility he did it, Joe Louis, like Jack Johnson before him, stood as a black man in the midst of a white society and beat representatives of the dominant group to their knees."

Certainly boxing provided a great many blacks with satisfying, if vicarious, revenge on whites. Louis's penetration into the black American consciousness went far beyond this, however. Sociologist Gunnar Myrdal found a one-room school for blacks in rural Georgia where the children had had so little contact with the world that they could not identify the President of the United States. Yet several knew Joe Louis. Malcolm X, the murdered leader of the militant Black Muslim group, recalled, "Every Negro boy old enough to walk wanted to be the next Brown Bomber." Joe Louis was a symbol of black power when blacks felt powerless. Martin Luther King Jr. remembered: "More than 25 years ago, one of the Southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation. The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellets dropped into the container, and gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: 'Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis....' "

Not all blacks were so fervent about Louis. Middle class blacks felt an integral ambivalence toward him. On the one hand, they were just as thrilled by his victories as all blacks; he was their avenger, their hero. On the other hand, he was uneducated—"just" a boxer. A middle class black girl from Washington, D.C. defined this ambivalence in an interview with sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: "Outside of fighting, I think he is a laughingstock. It is too bad he is so ignorant. I listen to his fights. When he lost I cried, I felt so bad about it."

For many educated blacks, however, Louis was not an embarrassment at all. In 1940 Richard Wright, the author, and Paul Robeson joined with Count Basie to record a song called King Joe. Wright wrote the lyrics, Basie the music, and Robeson sang.

Black-eye peas ask corn bread,
What make you so strong?
Corn bread says I come from
Where Joe Louis was born.

Rabbit say to the bee
What make you sting so deep?
He say I sting like Joe
An' rock 'em all to sleep.

Black leaders frequently used Louis as a rallying point in situations that had nothing to do with sport. When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let black contralto Marian Anderson sing at Constitution Hall in Washington in 1939, the singer immediately went to visit Louis's training camp. They posed for pictures, and Louis invited her to sing the national anthem before one of his fights. Sensitive blacks recognized early that Louis was going to change white perceptions of blacks. Theophilus Lewis, a writer for Harlem's Amsterdam News, wrote in October 1935: "His place in the limelight makes Joe Louis the world's most conspicuous Negro.... [H]undreds of stage shows and thousands of newspaper stories have associated the word Negro with crime and irresponsibility. In the mind of the average white man, the personal qualities of the most conspicuous Negro are merely an enlargement of the racial traits of all Negroes.... Give [whites] the impression that Negro is a synonym for Joe Louis and race relations will change for the better."

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