By John F. McKenna
Joe Louis’ accomplishments in the boxing ring are well known and the fact that he is considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest heavyweights of all time is undisputed. Louis was born on May 13, 1914 in rural Chambers County, Alabama.
Joe’s family joined what has been referred to as the Great Migration from the rural south to Detroit in the dream of finding a better life.
Louis had to live by a strict code of conduct in order for him to be successful as a fighter. The United States was still largely a racist country when Joe began his illustrious boxing carrer in the mid 1930’s. After Jack Johnson’s controversial reign as heavyweight champion ended in 1915, no African American was able to fight for the heavyweight championship for twenty two years until Joe Louis got his shot on June 22, 1937.
Louis’ early career was heavily influenced by a black businessman named John Roxborough. Roxborough was well aware that as a black fighter Louis had little chance to succeed in the corrupt world of boxing. Promoters were not interested in seeing a young black fighter make it in boxing during the depression years of the 1930’s. For that reason Roxbrough sought the help of a black promoter named Julian Black.
Roxborough spoke to Louis about “Black Power” long before people knew what the words meant. He told Joe that he would never make it in boxing with a white manager and a white promoter. Once Julian Black joined the management team he solicited the help of trainer Jake “Chappie” Blackburn, who was a great black featherweight fighter in his own right in the earl years of the 20th century. “Chappie” as Louis would later call Blacburn was reluctant take on a black fighter to train because ot the racial prejudice that existed at the time against black fighters. He thought it was useless to waste time on a fighter who had no chance of going anywhere.
Eventually Blackburn came around when he saw how serious young Louis was and the promise that he had as a fighter. Blackburn and Louis went on to became one of the greatest trainer – fighers combos in the history of the ring.
Roxborough and his management team drafted what they referred to as
“Commandments” for Louis to follow which they felt were essential for him to be successful. Those “Commandments” were:
- Never be photographed with a white woman
- Never gloat over a fallen opponent
- Never engage in fixed fights
- Always fight clean
- Live a clean life
Louis, because of his temperament, just like baseball great Jackie Robinson over a decade later, had no trouble living by the “Commandments” set out for him.
Joe’ early career was very successful as he quickly rose to the top of the heavyweight division. On his way towards a heavyweight title shot however Louis ran into the great German ex champion Max Schmeling. Herr Max (our Max) was deprived of his title in an extremely controversial loss to Jack Sharkey. Schmeling’s manager grabbed the mike immeditately after the fight and shouted the immotal words “We wuz robbed!” In reality Herr Max was robbed.
When Louis and Schmeling faced each other on June 19, 1936, Joe at 22 years old was still green and was used to his opponents falling down when he enteted the ring. Not so with Schmeling. Not only did Max not fall down he wound up knocking out Louis in the 12th round in a huge upset. There were real fears that Schmeling would go on to defeat heavyweight champion Jimmy Braddock (The Cinderella Man) and return to Germany with the heavyweight title. The feeling at the time was that Nazi leader Adolph Hitler would used propaganda to exploit the heavyweight championship and put it in cold storage. The world at the time was on the brink of World War II.
Braddock’s manager Joe Gould however came up with a deal in which Louis would get the title shot instead of Schmeling. It was a deal with the devil that Louis could not turn down. The deal guaranteed Braddock a 10% cut for all of Louis’s earnings for the next ten years. Not a bad deal for the soon to be ex champion considering Louis would hold the title for all of those ten years. Louis went on to knock Braddock out in the 8th round on June 22, 1937 to win the heavyweight title. He acknowledged however that he would not consider himself to be the heavyweight champion until he defeated Schmeliing.
Louis would have to wait another year for the return match with Schmeling. Louis – Shcmeling II would be the real “Fight of the Century”. The political rerurcussions for the loser would be tremendous. Hitler billed the fight as a test of the two political systems, Naziism vs Democracy. President Roosevelt himself invited Louis to the oval office in the White House to cheer him on. Roosevelt felt the muscles in Joe’s arms and told him he had to do his part for America. Louis got the message.
If it was possible Schmeling, who was not a Nazi, was under even more pressure than Louis. The return fight finally took place on June 22, 1938. Adolph Hitler placed a call to “Herr Max” while he was in his dressing room. Louis was never more focused than he was that night. He had Max in trouble in the first few seconds of the fight. Louis pinned Schemeling to the ropes and started raining avalances of punches on him from every angle.
Schemeling went down and courageously got up again only to be met by another barrage of punches. Max’s corner threw in the towel which was prompthly thrown out of the ring by the referee. But the fight was soon stopped.
In Germany the broadcast went off the air when it became evident that Schmeling was headed for defeat. Years later Max would tell Louis’ son “No one could have defeated your father that night.”
Louis became a hero overnight in America as the result of his victory over Shcmeling. The irony is that “Bomber Joe” was a hero not only in black America, but in white America as well. Louis was the first African American to cross racial lines to become a national hero. It was a heady moment for America.
When the United States was bombed at Pearl Harbor on Decembeer 7, 1941 Louis wasted no time in joining the U.S. Army. When chided by reporters as to why he was so pro American in a country that was still very racist, Joe’s response was classic. He said:
“A lot of things wrong with America. Hitler ain’t going to fix them.”
In 1941 Louis defended his title seven times. Boxing writers began to call the frequency with which he defended his title “The Bum of the Month Club.” The reality was however that almost all of his title defenses were against top ranked contenders. One of the fighters Louis fought, Bill Conn, gave “Bomber Joe” a real scare by taking him into the 13th round. Conn blew his golden opportunity when he foolishly started to mix it up with Joe and was KO’d in the 13th round. Prior to the fight with Conn, reporters were teasing Louis about the “Pittsburgh Kid’s” speed of hand and foot. Louis always quick with a comeback delivered another of his famous quotes. Speaking of Conn Louis said:
“He can run but he can’t hide.” It is a quote that has been used numerous times and even President Bush incorporated the quote into one of his speeches a few years ago.
Early in 1942 Louis appeared at a fund raiser for the purpose of selling U.S. Savings Bonds. Manny famous dignitaries and Hollywood stars were in attendance. Louis, not used to speaking before large groups spoke straight from his heart. His unforgettable quote was:
“We’ll win because we’re on God’s side.”
The Louis quote became a rallying cry for American soldiers during World War II. Posters with the quote were distributed in both the European and Pacific theaters during the war. Louis also donated his entire purse for two of his fights in the early stages of the war.
Prior to entering the service Joe was offered the opportunity to enter the service as an officer but declined saying he just wanted to be one of the guys. Louis fought 96 exhibition fights entertaining over two million troops during the war.
Louis lost much of his luster during the years he served in World War II. He retired in1949 for the 1st time after having been heavyweight champion for twelve years and defending his title twenty five times. Both the length of Louis’ title reign and the number of title defenses are records for any division in the history of boxing. His record of five 1st round KO’s is also a record.
After he retired Louis used his influence to become the first African American to play in a PGA Golf tournament in 1952. By no stretch of the imagination was Louis close to being at the level of a professional golfer. But it is a testament to his sense of justice and perseverance that he used his influence and the good will that the American people had for him that he was able to begin breaking down the prejudice that existed in the all white PGA. Shortly thereafter Louis sought out famed columnist Walter Winchell and issued a scathing indictment of PGA officials who refused to allow African Americans to play in their tournaments.
While Louis was serving in the Army he used his considerable influence to prevail upon some of the top generals he knew to allow African American soldiers to attend his exhibition fights.
In another instance Louis was able to get future baseball great Jackie Robinson into Officer Candidate Schools (OCS) . Robinson met all the requirements but until Louis intervened he was not able to get into OCS. Jackie Robinson became the first African American to attend OCS in the United States Army.
Louis’ ring accomplishments have long overshadowed his amazing accomplishments related to racial injustice. Perhaps it is time that the country that Louis served so well took time to stand back and assess his considerable impact related to Black History.