This week in black history: Joe Louis
Joe Louis was born in 1914 and through skill and dogged determination, fought his way up through the boxing ranks. In 1937, he became the first African American in 22 years to become the World Heavyweight Champion.
He held the title from 1937 to 1949, according to Randy Roberts in the biography he wrote entitled “Joe Lewis: Hard Times Man.”
His defeat of former heavyweight champion, James J. Braddock in 1937, helped lift the spirits of African Americans during the Great Depression. During this time, African Americans suffered from an unemployment rate two to three times that of whites. African Americans also received substantially less aid than whites through public assistance programs. Some charitable organizations even excluded blacks from their soup kitchens.
Louis is best known for his legendary matches against German boxer Max Schmeling, who defeated Louis when they first fought in 1936. Because of America’s involvement in WWII against Germany, their second match in 1938 was seen as a battle between Nazi ideology and American values even though Schmeling was never a member of the Nazi Party.
Throughout his unprecedented 12 year reign as World Heavyweight Champion, Louis projected a sense of power inside the boxing ring, along with quiet dignity outside the ring. This unique and dynamic combination of power and dignity would later transform him from a black hero into a national hero and ultimately, a sports icon.
What Joe Louis accomplished as a fighter opened sports more to African American athletes, according to Roberts’ biography.
In 1941, the army sent Louis on a series of exhibition matches for the troops, as well as speaking engagements. He donated the proceeds from title fights to the Navy Relief Fund twice. At the same time, he worked quietly to desegregate the armed forces, often participating in interracial events. Prior to this, events in the armed forces were heavily segregated.
During WWII, Louis fought 96 exhibition matches in front of more than 2 million troops. He also donated more than $100,000 to Navy and Army relief efforts, according to the Arlington National Cemetery website.
When Louis left the service in 1945, he was at the peak of his popularity and career. Many people thought of him as an American hero.
He went back to boxing and successfully defended his championship against all comers, retiring undefeated in 1949. His was the longest reign of any boxing champion in history. His legendary generosity to his family, old neighborhood friends and many African American causes endeared him to the public.
Joe Louis died in 1981 and was hailed as having restored class and integrity to professional boxing. Roberts wrote that 3,000 mourners gathered to hear tributes from speakers such as Jesse Louis Jackson, who was named after both Jesse Owens–an African American who was a four time Olympic gold medalist in track– and Joe Louis.
Perhaps the greatest tribute came from Muhammad Ali, former boxer and civil rights champion, who told a reporter that when Joe Louis died, “everybody cried.”
Every week in February, a Western Front reporter will discuss a person or event important to black history in recognition of Black History Month.