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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Johnson went on trial in May 1913. After five days of testimony about his travels with prostitutes, an all-white jury returned a predictable verdict of guilty. Free on bail, Johnson fled to Europe, where a promoter offered him $30,000 to fight Jess Willard, a 6'6¼" 250-pounder from Kansas. Johnson agreed, and the fight was held on April 5, 1915 in Havana, Cuba. Under a blazing afternoon sun, Willard knocked out Johnson in the 26th round. To this day, no one is sure whether the fight was fixed. Johnson returned to the U.S. in 1920, served a year in Leavenworth on his Mann Act conviction and spent the rest of his life in show business. He was killed in an automobile accident in 1946 at the age of 68.

Jack Johnson had a negative impact on the cause of civil rights in the U.S. Segregation and racial hatred were on the rise, and he confirmed the worst stereotypes of black behavior. His example encouraged whites to conclude that greater opportunities for blacks were dangerous. For the next 30 years black celebrities had to live down Johnson's ugly image and battle the fierce racist attitudes he had consciously exacerbated. Joe Louis Barrow was no exception.

He was born May 13, 1914 in a sharecropper's shack in Alabama, the seventh of eight children. Two years later his father was committed to the Searcy State Hospital; shortly thereafter Louis's mother heard that her husband had died. In fact, unknown to his family, Munroe Barrow lived another 20 years in that hospital, a truly invisible man. Thinking she was widowed, Lillie Barrow took up with a widower named Pat Brooks who had five children of his own. The Barrows moved into his small wooden house in the hamlet of Mount Sinai, Ala. The children slept three to a bed. Joe walked barefoot to school. When he was 12, his stepfather got a job in the Ford auto factory, and the family moved into a tenement in Detroit's black section. Large for his age and already behind due to inadequate schooling in Alabama, Joe was assigned to classes with younger children. Painfully embarrassed, he developed a stammer and retreated into a shell. Soon he was taken out of the academic system and shunted off to a vocational school.

Eventually the Depression threw Pat Brooks out of work. Joe did odd jobs, such as carrying ice. His mother was eager to keep him off the streets, so she scraped up some money and gave it to him for violin lessons. Instead, he used it to join a recreation center where he could learn to box. He quit school when he was 17 and got a job pushing truck bodies at an automotive plant. This exhausting work left him too tired to train very hard. He fought his first amateur match against one Johnny Miler, an experienced fighter who had been on the 1932 Olympic team. Miler knocked Louis down seven times in two rounds. After this humiliation, Louis dropped the name Barrow.

Discouraged, Louis avoided the gym for six months. Then, with his mother's support, he quit his job and took up boxing in earnest. Over the next year he fought 54 amateur bouts as a light heavyweight. He won 50 of them—43 by knockout. It was his superb amateur record that drew the attention of John Roxborough. Ultimately they grew so close that Louis moved into Roxborough's home. By June of 1934 he was ready to turn pro, and at this point Roxborough went to his Chicago friend Julian Black for help in financing Louis's career.

From July 4, 1934, when he KO'd Jack Kracken, to Oct. 31, when he knocked out Jack O'Dowd, Louis won nine straight fights. He filled out to more than 190 pounds. He came to expect to win every fight by a knockout.

The check for $59 from his first fight had made him feel rich, but now the purses kept getting bigger: $62, $101, $125, $250, $300, $450. At the age of 20 Joe Louis was not only providing for his family, he was also having great fun spending what was left over. He bought striped suits, broad-brimmed hats and a black Buick with whitewall tires.

His managers decided it was time for tougher competition. Louis knocked out Charley Massera, a ranked contender, on Nov. 30, 1934. He received $1,200. Two weeks later he knocked out Lee Ramage, a fast and skillful heavyweight. The Ring magazine now rated him the ninth contender for the title. Less than six months had passed since Louis's first professional fight, and Roxborough was already convinced that he was ripe for the big time. He phoned Jimmy Johnston, the Madison Square Garden promoter. They had never met, and Johnston said, "I can help your boy...[but] you understand he's a nigger, so he can't win every time he goes into the ring."

"So am I," Roxborough snapped, and hung up.

Johnston was following the dictates of what then passed for common wisdom in boxing circles. To promote a heavyweight fight between a leading white contender and a black man was both a social gamble and a financial risk. Johnston not only believed that Louis should take a smaller cut to lessen the financial risk, but also that he should throw some fights. Johnston was operating with the arrogance of monopolistic power. He controlled boxing at the Garden, and the Garden had been controlling boxing in general since the early 1920s. What Johnston didn't know was that his monopoly was getting shaky.

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