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Joe Louis is held often to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. He held the world title from 1937 to 1949, and he was perhaps the first African American to become a nationwide hero. Like Jack Johnson before him he was denied a tilt at the
world boxing crown for many years on account of his colour. Although there was no strict ‘colour line’ in boxing (as in baseball) white bitterness had been fuelled by Johnson’s disdain for the etiquette of early twentieth century white America and his intemperate shadow: African American boxers, at least in the heavyweight division, were held with scant regard after Jack Johnson.
Jack Johnson’s victory against James L. Jeffries in 1910 (the first “Fight of the Century”) triggered race riots in more than 25 states and 50 cities all across the United States; he had won the world title in 1908 and he was the first coloured heavyweight champion of the world. But it was his supposedly louche lifestyle – he drove fast cars and married three white women, a life eulogized by Miles Davis in his liner notes for the album Jack Johnson – that did for him before his boxing prowess. In 1913 he was convicted by an all-white jury under the Mann Act of a trumped up case of enticing a white bride across a state border; Johnson received a prison sentence, although his proud response was to skip bail and flee to Europe and a seven-year spell of exhibition fighting. When he returned to America he submitted himself to his prison sentence, social humiliation, a career of “cellar” fighting (he fought his last fight when aged 67) and death in a car crash. However individual Johnson was, his example stopped the likes of Harry Wills, Johnson’s successor, and Wills was never allowed to challenge the great white champion Jack Dempsey.
Joe Louis’ management team had Louis under strict orders to observe a fastidious moral code (the “Seven Commandments”) that portrayed him as the antipathy of Johnson – well mannered and meek, the custodian of true sportsmanship, and on no account would he be photographed with a white woman. Portrayed according to the racist press dictates of the day – his nicknames ranged from the Mahogany Mauler, Safari Sandman and the Chocolate Chopper, although the Brown Bomber was the nickname that stuck – Joe Louis became a more overt and conscious hero to the African American population when he defeated Primo Carnera in June, 1935; Carnera was a symbol of Mussolini’s Italy, the oppressor of Ethiopia for whom African American sympathy was writ large. Louis’ fight with Max Baer, former world title-holder and a white hero, became symbolic of the race struggle, and his easy victory in four rounds catapulted Joe Louis to truly national attention. Novelist and essayist Richard Wright reviewed this fight in his essay Joe Louis Discovers Dynamite. Louis was a figure who “intrigues me no end” (though he declined the offer of ghostwriting his autobiography later); his challenge against white supremacy was performed with relative impunity, it was metaphorical revolt, and he represented “all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation.” Since Jack Dempsey’s retirement in 1929, heavyweight boxing was in the doldrums, marred by mob involvement and a lack of personality to be seen in any of its leading names. Joe Louis came to be seen even by boxing’s white puppeteers as its marketable saviour.
Joe Louis’ victory against James J. Braddock to gain the world title in 1937 was feted throughout the African American communities of the United States; even more so when he defeated Max Schmeling, arch-supporter of Hitler, in June 1938, and in this instance, significantly, Louis was the standard bearer for all of America against the Nazi and Aryan threat (“the whole damned country was depending on me”). Richard Wright describes in his novel Lawd Today! how his Black postal worker hero felt that Louis had “made me feel good all the way down to my guts,” and Wright wrote in 1941 a thirteen-stanza length poem, King Joe, which was recorded by Okeh (under the control of Columbia Records at this point) in October of that year. With Count Basie’s music and Paul Robeson singing – his first outing as a blues singer (Jimmy Rushing was at the recording session to coach him) – this went on to sell well over 40,000 copies in its first few months. For Langston Hughes, “Joe’s one-man triumphs” had a decisive effect on “Negro emotions.”