That’s quite a book, I said to my wife Joselyn as I finished “Joe Louis” by Randy Roberts. Not a great book, I corrected myself, but a great story.
Joe Louis reigned, and that is the right word, as heavyweight boxing champion of the world from 1937 to 1949. Roberts writes, “He had come up from desperate poverty, made millions of dollars, walked down the avenues of America like a god, and heard his name praised from New York to California. Joe Louis, the champion of the world. He had been the most written about and talked about athlete in America, maybe anyone in America. There could be no encore, not even a second act, to his life in the ring.”
Yet Joe Louis lived another thirty-two years, dying in 1981 of a heart attack the morning after watching Larry Holmes outpoint Trevor Berbick at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Saying little, protected from scrutiny both by the press and his own handlers, Louis became a symbol like no other for people of color. One black editorialist said early in Louis’ career, “What he is doing as a fighter will do more to show up the fallacy of ‘inherent inferiority’ of Negroes than could be done by all the anthropologists in the nation – so far as the ears and eyes of the white masses are concerned. One flash of his mighty brown arm is a better argument than a book... He will be felt where no sermon ever would be heard.”
White sportswriters in the 1930's painted Louis in the grossest racial stereotypes. The black press saw him as a symbol of the fight against oppression, and as an oppressed man himself, despite the success and the money.
The story of great black fighter Jack Johnson still resounded when Joe Louis began his run of victories. Jack Johnson kayoed all comers, “great white hopes” included. He flaunted his white girlfriends and wealth. “In victory, Johnson had probed the live nerve of American racism,” Roberts says. A unanimous white establishment then disbarred, discredited and discouraged Johnson and his supporters.
When it came to Joe Louis, from the start his handlers carefully crafted a largely silent, heroic figure, the very image of a bold fighter who said little and never* lost, a piece of clay Americans could shape into whatever statue they needed.
Louis’s career was chronicled exhaustively in the press, and Rogers relies mostly on press reports to create his story. Perhaps the author was unable or unwilling to interview people who knew the champion. The result is a book crammed with incident but set oddly at a distance from Joe Louis himself, the largely unknown person behind the persona.
Even as told from ringside rather than inside, Roberts has a magnificent story to tell, one deserving to be pondered and contemplated. Why was Joe Louis so important to so many people? How did he survive the virtually unanimous racism and become at last a hero to all Americans?
Roberts suggests the answer: “More than any man, any force, of the generation, Louis confirmed full black equality – even, some asserted superiority. In the ring he did not ask for respect or equality; with his fists he demanded and received it... Louis exerted a powerful appeal, symbolically expressing African Americans’ struggle for equality and deep-seated yearning for a settlement of past injustices...”
Jackie Robinson, setting out to be the first black player in white professional baseball, said “I’ll try to do as good a job as Joe Louis has done...”
Joe Louis defended his title more than 25 times, 22 by knockout. “No heavyweight (had) defended his title more often. Louis had defended it seven times more than the previous eight champions combined.”
At the funeral, held in a ring at the Sports Pavilion of Caesars Palace, the Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “We are honoring a giant who saved us in a troubled time... With Joe Louis we had made it from the guttermost to the uttermost; from the slave ship to the 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.”
“The reverend Jesse Louis Jackson (named Jessie for Jessie Owens and Louis for Joe Louis) continued: God sent Joe from the black race to represent the human race. He was the answer to the sincere prayers of the disinherited and dispossessed. Joe made everybody somebody... Joe, we love your name... We all feel bigger today because Joe came this way. He was in the slum, but the slum was not in him. Ghetto boy to man, Alabama sharecropper to champion. Let’s give Joe a big hand clap. This is a celebration. Let’s hear it for the champ. Let’s hear it for the champ! Joe, we love your name. Let’s give the champ a big hand.”
From the book: “In a fitting irony,Joe Louis’ carefully manicured, noncontroversial image became the centerpiece for the loudest cry for racial justice and set the tone for the later civil rights movement.”
“Joe Louis” by Randy Roberts. Yale University Press hard cover $30. ISBN 9780300122220. Published October, 2010.
Google “images for Joe Louis” to see Google’s very large collection of images of Joe Louis; or try this address.
Wikipedia’s Joe Louis entry.
* During his heyday, Louis lost to German Max Schmeling by knockout (1936) in the 12th round; in the return match Louis KO’d Schmeling (to the great chagrin of Nazi Germany) in 2:04 of the first round (1938). Overall, Joe Louis lost three professional fights: Schmeling (1936); Ezzard Charles (1950) and Rocky Marciano (1951). Louis “retired” and relinquished his title in 1949. The Charles fight was for the title he had given up; the Marciano fight was the last of nine non-title fights of which Louis won all but the last. His final record: 65 Wins (51 knockouts, 13 decisions, 1 disqualification); 3 Losses (2 knockouts, 1 decision).