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And Roxborough continued: "Joe, you're going to get a lot of invitations to nightclubs. But you never go into one alone. And above all you never have your picture taken with a white woman."
"Oh, and there's one more thing," Blackburn chimed in. "You never lose a fight."
Louis's first professional bout was on July 4, 1934 in Chicago against a local white fighter named Jack Kracken. Blackburn spoke bluntly to his protégé before the fight. He told him that he was a black fighter in a white man's sport, and said, "You can't get nowhere nowadays trying to outpoint white fellows in the ring, because it's mighty hard for a colored boy to win decisions. The dice is loaded against you. You gotta knock 'em out and keep knocking 'em out to get anywhere."
Blackburn held up Louis's taped right hand. "Let your right fist be the referee. Don't ever forget that. Let that right fist there be your referee!" Joe Louis obediently "refereed" his first fight by knocking Kracken out in the first round.
At the time Joe Louis began his career, black men—with the one outrageous exception—had seldom played more than a minor role in American sport. A few blacks had been in organized baseball as early as 1872, but that ended abruptly in 1887 when Adrian (Cap) Anson incited the Chicago White Stockings to boycott an exhibition game against Newark of the International League because the starting pitcher was black. Black men were banned from baseball for the next 60 years. In horse racing black jockeys had won the Kentucky Derby 14 times from 1875 to 1902. But in 1894 the Jockey Club of New York took control of the licensing of jockeys, allowing established blacks to race while discouraging all others, and after 1911 no black rider would appear in the Derby again.
Boxing was less segregated than other sports. Several blacks had won titles over the years in lighter weight divisions. However, none had won—or even been allowed to contend for—the heavyweight championship until the infamous Jack Johnson came along in 1908. The titleholder at the time was a Canadian named Tommy Burns. He wanted nothing to do with a black man, but Johnson's manager offered the champion a $30,000 guarantee—a fantastic sum then—and in addition he agreed to let Burns's own manager referee the fight. It was held on Dec. 26, 1908 in Sydney, Australia. Johnson scored a knockout in the 14th round.
This attracted little attention in the U.S., but then Johnson returned and defended his title five times in one year against the best white challengers. He was an arrogant man who kept up a stream of chatter during a fight, often making fun of his opponent's attempts to hit him. He refused to obey any of the conventions of the U.S.'s segregated society. He traveled openly with two or three white prostitutes at a time. Before he sparred, he would wrap his penis to make it look bigger—a blatant play on white sexual insecurities.
No active challengers were a match for Johnson, and soon the only "Great White Hope" left was Jim Jeffries, the retired champion, who had not fought for five years. A match was arranged in Reno by promoter Tex Rickard.
The public quickly came to view the fight as a racial test, and ultimately it attracted more attention than any sporting event in the U.S. until then. On the day of the fight—July 4, 1910—many black churches held special services to pray for Johnson, and 30,000 people gathered at the Times Tower in New York City to get round-by-round telegraph reports. It was no contest. Johnson jeered and smiled for 14 rounds before knocking out the washed-up champ in the 15th.
He had earned more than $70,000, and he commanded top dollar as a vaudeville attraction. In 1909 he married a white woman but continued to consort with prostitutes. His wife killed herself three years after the marriage. A month later federal agents charged him with violating the Mann Act, a law passed in 1910 prohibiting the interstate transport of women for "immoral purposes."