Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis Fought for Black America

There was a time in America history when Joe Louis was considered the most important Black American. As the heavyweight champion of the world from 1937-1949, very few people — Black or white — could touch his star power. Americans celebrated Louis for more than just his boxing skills; he was a symbol of what America could be. As Black writer Al Sweeney once wrote in the Cleveland Call and Post in 1942, “Joe Louis hasn’t only proven to be the greatest fighting champion to ever don the abbreviated fight trunks, but he has done more to promote inter-racial (sic) good will than any other Negro individual in history.”

His rise from poverty to championship, coupled with his destruction of German fighter Max Schmeling (the only person he had been defeated by at that point) in 1938, and his patriotic sacrifice during WWII, had many believing that America would overcome the stain of racism. But that never happened. The love for Joe Louis from white America, as it is for most Black athletes, was symbolic. While Louis is still well-known today, he’s remembered for his pugilistic skills and the name of an old sports arena in Detroit, but not for the change he once inspired.

Before he became a symbol of American hope, Joe Louis belonged to Black America.

From the red clay soil of Lafayette, Alabama, to Detroit’s Black Bottom, the “Brown Bomber” stood as a symbol for Black uplift. Born Joe Louis Barrow in 1914, Louis moved to Detroit at age 12, trading one form of segregation and economic depression for another. There’s a good chance that if he did not have dynamite in his fists, Louis would have been stuck at the Bottoms fighting for survival. Like so many Black kids of his era, he was pulled out of grammar school and tracked for industrial education. To keep him away from trouble, his mom arranged for him to take violin lessons, but Louis used the money to train in boxing.

He turned pro on July 4, 1934, and with his devastating knockouts, the Black community quickly took note. Black folks saw in Louis somebody that could exact retribution for their pain. Author Richard Wright said it best when he wrote in The Daily Worker in 1938, “Joe was the consciously-felt symbol. Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white. And it comes so seldom, so seldom. And what could be sweeter than long nourished hate vicariously gratified?” As a boxer in a white controlled sport, however, Louis was still constrained by America’s memory of Jack Johnson — the first Black heavyweight champion and so-called “bad Negro” who bet against Louis in his fight against Schmeling in 1936.

To get a shot at the heavyweight title, Louis and his handlers made a bargain. Joe Louis could be Black, but he could not be Jack Johnson-Black. No white women, no bragging, and no flamboyant clothes. Louis had to be humble, sober, and whatever characteristics a“good Black” needed to have to make white people comfortable. And it worked. In 1937, he defeated “Cinderella Man” James Braddock to win the title. “If I ever do anything to disgrace my race,” Louis said afterward, “I hope I die.” He understood that his popular presence meant he would be policed by a white America waiting for his downfall. Louis did not let his people down. He said the right things, did the right things, and thus they did not have to reckon with a history of racism.

While Louis was a savior to Black America, he rescued white America from their guilt.

Despite being the grandson of enslaved people and the son of sharecroppers, he harbored no public ill will toward white people. He beat Schmeling, joined the war effort, and as a member of the segregated US military, Louis famously said America would win the war, because America was on “God’s side.”

Writer Isaac Gellis called Louis his “favorite American” in a 1945 issue of Facts magazine, author Margery Miller entitled her 1945 book, Joe Louis: American, and sportswriter Ed Linn lauded that President Franklin Roosevelt and Joe Louis stood as the two great figures of their generation. For as much as white America liked Louis, however, they never seemed to champion his causes. Louis used his platform to attack Jim Crow, lynching, and police brutality, but he fought those battles alone. Despite their love for Louis, Black people, as Muhammad Ali said, still “caught hell.”

Louis’ country betrayed him too. Despite having the longest reign for a heavyweight champion, Louis retired broke in 1949. While some of his financial problems stemmed from personal responsibility — he lent money to friends and strangers, bet a lot on his golf matches, and also made several bad investments — most of his financial woes came from his one-sided fight with the government. Louis got behind on his taxes when he traded his boxing earnings for a serviceman’s salary. He made roughly $472,000 in 1941 from fighting, but in 1942 he donated nearly 75 percent of his prizefight earnings to the military, meaning he could not pay his taxes from his earnings the previous year. This left him in a hole that he could not escape. Every time he had a fight, the IRS took their cut. To pay his debts, he kept fighting. At the end of his career, the American idol looked like a pathetic figure.

Despite his decline in and out of the ring, Black America always loved Joe Louis. By his death on April 12, 1981, the Black Detroiters had reclaimed his image as a symbol of their fight against blight. In 1979, Detroit completed the Joe Louis Arena as the centerpiece of what was supposed to be a revitalized city. But there was a feeling amongst many that “The Joe” was more for white people and not Black folks, as the arena was the home to the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. In this sense, interaction with Louis remained the same: whites could experience the nostalgia of Joe Louis without dealing with the Black history he represented.

The city of Detroit is tearing down “The Joe” and its promise of revitalization is being taken up by the Little Caesars Arena. But in many ways, the memory of Joe Louis the American hero is gone too. He’s just a Black boxer, not the American that represented change. And so far the change that was supposed to come with Little Caesars Arena, has been an empty promise in the form of empty buildings that have sucked needed tax dollars from Black students in Detroit’s school system. Real change would mean reclaiming the symbol of Joe Louis and fulfilling ideas of democracy and equality that he once embodied.

About the Author

Louis Moore is an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University. He teaches African American history, Civil Rights, sports history, and US history. He is the author of I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915 and We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality. He has also written for a number of online outlets, including The Shadow League, New York Daily News, Vox, and Vocativ, and has appeared on news outlets, including NPR, MSNBC, and BBC Sports talking sports and race.