Many whites assumed that Louis would have saved his money and paid his taxes if he had had the choice. The truth is that he chose to spend or give away his money without a thought for the future. Louis himself had no delusions about that. When a friend suggested that if he had fought in the 1960s, he would have earned far more money, Louis said cheerfully, "Wouldn't make no difference. I'd still end up broke."
To see Louis as he really was demands complex and subtle judgments. He had his contradictions. He was tolerant and friendly with everyone on a casual level, but he was careless about the people he loved most. He was a hard-working disciplined athlete, but he never did work hard at anything else in his life. He carried himself with dignity in trying circumstances, but he was not embarrassed to rely on other people for money in his later years. Indeed, he finally came to assume that American society would always provide for him simply because he had been the greatest boxer in the world.
At his death journalists described him with the same clichés they had used during his career. But while Louis's public image has remained constant, the historical context of that image changed drastically. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he lost his unique significance as the symbol for black Americans simply because dozens of other black athletes—such as Jackie Robinson, Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson and Willie Mays—had also become stars in the white media.
As Americans became more aware of their racism, white society was forced to accept black men who refused to fit old stereotypes. The growing black militancy and the rising white consciousness nourished each other. In this new social context Louis's image came to seem a symbol of Uncle Tom.
It is true that during his active career Louis had never spoken out against racism. He was by no means a politician, and it was not in him to be bitter or righteously indignant. He did not have the initiative or the vision to challenge social institutions. He did not think it appropriate—or possible—for him to be much more than the heavyweight champion of the world.
His silence continued after he retired, even during the years of the civil rights revolution. Occasionally reporters sought his reactions to more militant black athletes. When Cassius Clay converted to the Black Muslim faith and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Louis denounced Ali and said, "I'll never go along with the idea that white people are devils. I believe that every man is my brother. I was born a Baptist and I'll die a Baptist...."
He clearly was no radical. He was too tolerant and he loved spending money too much for that. But Louis was no Uncle Tom. He expressed regret that he did not have the drive to be a black leader, and he once said, "Sometimes I wish I had the fire of a Jackie Robinson to speak out and tell the black man's story."
There were—and still are—people who wish that America's first black hero had been an intellectual or a politician. But American racism was implacable in the 1930s. It didn't matter whether a black man was militant or inoffensive—white society would not allow him to escape his assigned position of second-class citizen. It took years before white Americans fully accepted Louis. When they finally did, they were not only accepting a black man at the peak of his strength, they were also implicitly accepting the possibility that other blacks might rise as high as he did. Considering that he caused such a fundamental change in American attitudes all by himself, Louis's later failure to become an outspoken militant seems completely irrelevant.
On Friday, April 17, 1981, some 3,000 people attended his memorial service, which was held in the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion. The Rev. Jesse Jackson rose to give the eulogy before the copper casket. He said softly, "This is not a funeral, this is a celebration. We are honoring a giant who saved us in a time of trouble." His voice rose to a shout. "With Joe Louis we had made it from the guttermost to the uttermost; from slaveship to championship. Usually the champion rides on the shoulders of the nation and its people, but in this case the nation rode on the shoulders of the hero. Joe...Joe! We love your name! Let's give Joe a big hand clap! Let's hear it for the champ!"
Those in the audience started to clap tentatively. Jackson urged them on. "Express yourselves! Be glad! He lifted us up when we were down. He made our enemies leave us alone!" The crowd rose to its feet. "Wave to Joe now! Give the champion a wave!" cried Jackson. And 3,000 people slowly waved at Joe Louis's coffin in the ring.