Article abstract: World heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949, Louis was a hero to black Americans of all backgrounds. Although some maintained that a boxer should not have been so celebrated, Louis was perhaps more widely recognized and applauded by the black community than any other individual prior to the modern Civil Rights movement.
Born May 13, 1914, in a sharecropper’s shack in the Buckalew Mountain region of east central Alabama, Joseph Louis Barrow was the seventh of eight children of Lillie Reese and Munroe Barrow. In 1916, Joe’s father was committed to a hospital for the insane. Believing that her husband had died (in fact, he lived, institutionalized, for twenty more years), Mrs. Barrow married widower Pat Brooks, who had five children of his own. The couple had several more children. The combined families lived in Brooks’s small wooden house in tiny Mt. Sinai, Alabama.
In 1926, Pat Brooks got a job with the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, and the family moved north to an ethnically mixed Detroit slum. Joe, already behind in his education because of inadequate schooling in Alabama, was placed in a class with younger children. He developed a stammer and became a loner. Officials assigned him to a vocational school, mistaking his difficulties for lack of mental ability.
Brooks lost his employment during the Depression, and Joe had to do odd jobs to help support the large family. At that time Joe began boxing at the Brewster Recreation Center, where he used the ring name Joe Louis for fear that his mother would find out he was boxing and insist that he stop. Instead, his new interest won her approval. When he quit school to get a job at an auto body plant, however, he had neither time nor energy to train properly. He temporarily gave up the sport after suffering a bad beating at the hands of a member of the 1932 Olympic team, but, with his mother’s backing, he soon quit his job to concentrate on the ring.
As an amateur light-heavyweight Louis won fifty of fifty-four fights in the next year and was becoming known in boxing circles by early 1934. In April, he won the National Amateur Athletic Union title. Under the guidance of a man from Detroit’s black community, he then turned professional, using part of his earnings to provide for his family. Louis’ color might have delayed his chance to break into the big time; an earlier black heavyweight, Jack Johnson, had provoked the wrath of the white public prior to World War I through his enormous success as a fighter and his life-style outside the ring. According to Louis’ best informed biographer, Johnson’s controversial actions “confirmed the worst stereotypes of black behavior.”
Louis’ break came in early 1935 when New York ticket-broker and promoter Mike Jacobs took an interest in him. Unlike other promoters of the time, recalled Louis, Jacobs “had no prejudice about a man’s color so long as he could make a green buck for him.” Although Jacobs himself was not knowledgeable about boxing, he sought good advice about Louis and was impressed with what he saw and was told. The New York Times described Louis in 1935 thus:
He has sloping shoulders, powerful arms with sinews as tough as whipcords and dynamite in his fists. A slim perfectly modeled body, tapering legs, an inscrutable, serious face that reveals no plan of his battle, gives no sign whether he is stung or unhurt—these are his characteristics . . . . Louis has about the most savage, two-fisted attack of any fighter of modern times. He doesn’t punch alone with one hand. He destroys with either or both.
Jacobs had as silent partners several Hearst sportswriters; therefore, favorable publicity began to grow not only in the influential Hearst press but also in other papers. Remembering the follies of Johnson, Louis’ managers were careful to cultivate the image of Louis as a model of middle-class propriety. He did not smoke or drink, he read the Bible, he was modest, and he was generous. He was indeed many of these things; in areas where his behavior was not exemplary—for example, his profligacy with money and his pursuit of women—he was discreet, and the image his managers sought to develop remained substantially intact. It was probably not true that John Roxborough, the man who first sponsored Louis’ professional career, intended all along for Louis to become a racial ambassador, but as Louis’ fame grew, he did become one.
After his well-publicized fifth-round knockout of former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera on June 25, 1935, Louis was being ballyhooed as the greatest gate attraction in boxing since Jack Dempsey. Less than three months later, Louis whipped another former champ and gained widespread recognition as the world’s best heavyweight, if not yet champion. Also in 1935, he married Marva Trotter, a young Chicago secretary; they had two children.
Louis’ march to the title received an unexpected setback on July 10, 1936, when he met the prominent German boxer Max Schmeling, a former titleholder yet a big underdog to Louis. In the fourth round, Louis was knocked down for the first time in his professional career. Schmeling won by a knockout in the fourteenth round.
Much of the white press seemed to be waiting for this chance to rejoice in Louis’ defeat. Racism, especially in the South, came through clearly in columnists’ analyses of the match, and Louis was now being called just another fighter. In Germany, the Nazi press was ecstatic. Louis’ managers scheduled Louis for other fights to keep him from brooding over his defeat. He kept on winning, and Jacobs got Louis a title bout with James Braddock in June, 1937. A journeyman who had held the title since 1935, the underdog Braddock fought gamely in their Chicago match but was clearly weakening by the middle rounds. Louis’ corner spotted this, and he was able to knock Braddock out in the eighth. Louis had become only the second black man to hold the heavyweight title and at twenty-three was the youngest champion in his division.
Louis had still to win recognition as a great champion. Erasing the stigma of his loss to Schmeling would help Louis gain this status. The two men met again on June 22, 1938. Since their first battle, Americans had come to understand much more about Nazism, and although Schmeling was not a Nazi himself, he was now seen as the representative of Hitler’s Germany. Louis, in contrast, had grown in...
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