“This is the best country I know of… and I’d gladly fight to defend it. Every colored man I’ve ever known has been 100 percent American and I’ll always be loyal to my country and my race. I’d never let either down.”
One of the greatest boxers to ever grace the sport, Joe Louis has endured in the hearts of Americans as not only a champion, but a hero as well. No just a black hero, however. An American hero. He represented the United States at a time when our fundamental principles of democracy and freedom were being threatened by Hitler’s Third Reich across the ocean in Germany. What is most remarkable, however, is that he did so as a black man when our nation was still engulfed in an atmosphere of segregation and discrimination. He challenged the standards of racial inequality and proved that all men are equal. He showed the country that all citizens serve the United States, whether they be black or white. In the end, that might have been his greatest victory of all.
Before he rose to become the iconic “Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis spent the first part of his childhood in Alabama, one of eight biological siblings and eight other step siblings. In 1926, when he was twelve, Louis’ family moved north to Detroit, Michigan as part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the fields of the South to the urban cities of the North. Throughout his youth, Joe Louis struggled in school, hindered by serious learning disabilities and a strong dislike of the practice. Due to his size and lack of interest in education, Louis became interested in boxing after his friend Thurston McKinney convinced him to try the sport, prompting him to begin training with Atler Ellis and Holman Williams at the Brewster’s East Side Gymnasium in Detroit. In 1932, when he was eighteen, Louis began his amateur boxing career. After an initial loss, Louis went on to win his next fourteen fights, each bringing a bonus check that he gave to his mother to feed his large family. It was this early success in amateur bouts that eventually prompted Louis to move to Chicago and begin his legendary career as a professional prizefighter.
In Chicago, Louis began training with Jack Blackburn, a man who introduced “The Joe Louis Shuffle” to his boxing strategy. This quick shuffling of the feet helped Louis maintain his balance during fights and led to many early round knockouts by Louis. With each fight, he was more spectacular than the last, defeating opponents handily and knocking them out with ease. As his resume improved, so did his popularity, especially in African American communities. After two big wins in 1934 over Primo Carnera and Kingfish Levinsky, black newspapers across the country lauded his athletic talent and praised his achievements. These huge wins also earned Louis a lot of money, which he then shared with his mother and the rest of his family, paying off all of their welfare checks and buying his mother a fully furnished house in Detroit.
With such dominance in the ring, Joe Louis began to emerge as a full fledged racial hero. Indeed, from 1933 to 1938, Louis was featured on the front page of magazines and newspapers more than any other black leader. Suddenly, he became a role model for young African American children, an embodiment of the heights a black man could achieve with hard work and determination. For the black population of America, Joe Louis was not just a champion, he was their champion, and if he could win the many bouts he participated in, then maybe they could win their daily personal struggles as well. Then in 1937, coming off a loss to Germany’s Max Schmeling, Louis knocked out Jim Braddock in the eight round to become the second black American to win the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship, after Jack Johnson in 1908.
When he won the heavyweight title, Joe Louis had been primarily a black hero. It wasn’t until his rematch against Max Schmeling in 1938, however, that he truly emerged as an American hero. Indeed, this fight is one of the most important examples of the ability of sports to promote racial equality throughout the country. When it took place, the United States and Germany were divided by their differing political and ideological beliefs, with the threat of armed conflict looming on the horizon. This view translated into the ring as well, with Schmeling representing the Nazi ideals of Aryan supremacy and Louis embodying the American concepts of democracy and equality.
Against the common enemy of Germany, whites and blacks across the United States were able to stand behind Louis and support him as a defender of their freedoms and beliefs. He was, ultimately, a representation of America, and when he scored a first round knockout over Schmeling, he suddenly became the nation’s new hero. When the country looked upon him, they did not see him as black; they saw him as American. The Chicago Defender wrote of Louis’ victory, “It was more than the victory of one athlete over another, it was the triumph of a repressed people against the evil forces of racial oppression and discrimination condensed- by chance- into the shape of Max Schmeling.” Ultimately, Louis had transcended the racial barriers of the time, and this emergence proved that all men were equal regardless of skin color, both in the ring and out.
Joe Louis’ role as a patriotic hero of America was only furthered when he joined the Army in 1942. This action proved that men of all races were Americans too, and helped close the gap between blacks and whites and unify the nation. He also went on to contribute several of his purses from heavyweight fights to branches of the American military, such as the Navy and the Army. These actions helped characterize him as a man who embodied the fundamental beliefs of our nation. They solidified him as an American folk hero, one who inspired Americans of all races in a time when our nation was threatened by World War II. In the end, Joe Louis remains, even today, not just a great boxer, not just a great black leader, but a great American citizen as well.
Miller, Patrick B., and David Kenneth Wiggins. Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.