Mead’s study of Louis is a critical, yet sympathetic one appropriate for young adults as well as for older readers. Central to the work is Louis’ brilliance as a unique and distinguished boxer, one who successfully defended his championship more than any predecessor. Because of his noble ring presence and demeanor, he earned the affection of the general, as well as the sporting, public.
The young Louis’ background mirrored the experiences of millions of African Americans, Southerners especially, in the decades after 1914. He was the child of a large, impoverished family of sharecroppers. After migrating to Detroit with his stepfather in the depths of the Great Depression, he lived a hand-to-mouth existence, took to the streets, and then began boxing in the pursuit of big money. Most who chose boxing to attain that goal—white or black—failed, usually impaired for life and having nothing to show for the experience. Superbly trained by Blackburn, cleverly managed by Roxborough and Black, and vigorously promoted by Jacobs, however, Louis fought his way through the dense ranks of heavyweight opponents to the championship by 1937. Although sportswriters characterized him in racial terms that a generation later would prove utterly unacceptable—the “Brown Bomber,” the “Brown Butcher,” a “jungle killer,” a “gorilla,” or a “jungle lion”—the media readily accepted him as the new champion.
In part, this tolerance was the result of Louis’ public persona, which had been specifically...
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