'Brown Bomber' was a hero to all

Updated: April 7, 2006, 2:39 PM ET
By Larry Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

"Even white folks on the job that would say nigger 50 times a day, that would say boy this and boy that, would light up when they talked about Joe," says civil rights activist Dick Gregory about Joe Louis on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Joe Louis
Louis finished his career with a 68-3 record, including 54 knockouts.
The son of an Alabama sharecropper, great grandson of a slave, great great grandson of a white slave owner became the first African-American to achieve lasting fame and popularity in the 20th century.

In a time when his own people were still subject to lynchings, discrimination and oppression, when the military was segregated and African-Americans weren't permitted to play major league baseball, Joe Louis was the first African-American to achieve the kind of hero worship that was previously reserved for whites only. When he started boxing in the thirties, there were no African-Americans in positions of public prominence, none who commanded attention from whites.

"What my father did was enable white America to think of him as an American, not as a black," said his son, Joe Louis Jr. "By winning, he became white America's first black hero."

Louis was heavyweight champion of the world in an era when the heavyweight champion was, in the minds of many, the greatest man in the world. Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champ, wasn't popular with whites. Louis, on the other hand, converted all into his corner. When "The Brown Bomber" avenged his loss to Germany's Max Schmeling - viewed as a Nazi symbol - the entire country celebrated, not just African-Americans.

Louis' war-time patriotism in a racially divided country made him a symbol of national unity and purpose. Twice he donated his purse to military relief funds. He endeared himself even more to the American public when he said the U.S. would win World War II "because we're on God's side."

Joe Louis
Louis received the Legion of Merit for his service during World War II.

While some accused Louis of being an Uncle Tom, others realized it wasn't in his training or character to be militant. His uncommon sense of dignity, exemplified by his refusal to be pictured with a slice of watermelon, increased his popularity.

When some called Louis "a credit to his race," sportswriter Jimmy Cannon responded, "Yes, Louis is a credit to his race - the human race."

He also was a credit to boxing, which often contributes to the worst in the human race. His championship reign, from 1937 until he stepped down in 1949, is the longest of any heavyweight. With his powerful left jab, his destructive two-fisted attack that he released with accuracy at short range, and his capacity for finishing a wounded opponent, the 6-foot-1 fighter defeated all 25 of his challengers, another record.

He finished his career with a record of 68-3, with 54 knockouts, according to The Boxing Register.

Louis also was a winner with women. Though married four times, including twice to his first wife, he discreetly enjoyed the company of both African-American and white women, including Lena Horne, Sonja Henie and Lana Turner.

He was born Joseph Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914, in a shack in the cotton-field country near Lafayette, Ala. Besides being African-American, he also was part Indian and part white. His father was committed to a state hospital for the mentally ill before he was two.

His mother heard her husband had died (he hadn't, though) and remarried. The children slept three to a bed in Alabama before the family moved to Detroit in the twenties. Joe was learning cabinetmaking in a vocational school and taking violin lessons when he turned to boxing at the request of a schoolmate.

Fighting under the name Joe Louis, so his mother wouldn't find out, he won 50 of 54 amateur bouts and gained the attention of John Roxborough, king of the numbers rackets in Detroit's African-American neighborhoods. Roxborough and Julian Black, a speakeasy owner who also ran numbers, convinced Louis to turn pro in 1934 and they became his managers.

To shape the fighter's image, Roxborough publicized seven commandments, which would be inoffensive to white Americans. They included: Never be photographed with a white woman, never gloat over a fallen (read white) opponent, never engage in fixed fights, and live and fight clean.

Louis won his first 27 fights, 23 by knockout, with his most impressive victories being a sixth-round TKO of Primo Carnera and a fourth-round KO of Max Baer, both former heavyweight champions. His undefeated streak ended on June 19, 1936 when Schmeling, another former champion, detected a chink in Louis' armor: Because Louis carried his left hand low, he was vulnerable to a counter right.

In the fourth round, Schmeling's overhand right dropped Louis, who never recovered, though he lasted until the 12th before two rights by Schmeling ended the fight. In the dressing room, Louis cried.

His road to the title had merely taken a detour. On June 22, 1937, he became the first African-American champ since Johnson when he dethroned James Braddock, knocking out "The Cinderella Man" in the eighth round. "For one night, in all the darktowns of America, the black man was king," wrote Alistair Cooke.

Louis became a symbol of African-American power in a time when they felt powerless. "Every Negro boy old enough to walk wanted to be the next Brown Bomber," said Malcolm X, the murdered leader of the militant Black Muslims.

Exactly one year later, Louis exacted his revenge on Schmeling. The fight was for more than the heavyweight championship, more than two individuals competing. It was built into a battle of two ideologies.

Louis
Louis
In one corner was Schmeling, representing Hitler (though Schmeling wasn't a Nazi) and everything fascism stood for. In the other corner was Louis, representing the U.S. and everything democracy meant. Louis was invited to the White House, where President Franklin Roosevelt felt the champ's biceps. "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany," he said.

There were reports of messages to Schmeling from Hitler warning him that he had better win for the glory of the Third Reich. Hitler hailed him as a paragon of Teutonic manhood, and telephoned him personally before he left the dressing room.

Schmeling wasn't gone from the room long. Before some 70,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, Louis pulverized the reluctant Aryan figurehead, knocking him to the canvas three times. Two years of waiting ended for Louis after 124 seconds, with Schmeling lying broken on the canvas. Louis had crossed the line from champion to idol as Americans of all color and ancestry celebrated.

He went through a "Bum of the Month" club until he met former light-heavyweight champ Billy Conn on June 18, 1941. It appeared as if Louis were about to lose his title; after 12 rounds, he trailed by three and two rounds on two officials' scorecards. But Conn ignored his corner's instruction to box with caution, and the result was Louis knocking him out with two seconds left in the 13th round.

Louis enlisted in the Army in 1942 and fought close to 100 exhibitions before some two million servicemen. After the war, he knocked out Conn again ("He can run, but he can't hide") and won three other fights, including two with Jersey Joe Walcott, before abdicating his title.

However, in need of money because the IRS was hounding him for back taxes, he returned to the ring. After not fighting for two years, he lost a one-sided decision to his successor as champ, Ezzard Charles, in 1950 and retired for good when Rocky Marciano knocked him out in the eighth round in 1951.

Louis' fights earned him close to $5 million, but the money went like three-minute rounds, mostly due to his extravagances and generosity. The IRS, conveniently forgetting Louis' generosity during the war, demanded a reported $1.25 million in back taxes, interest and penalties, and he suffered the humiliation of pro wrestling to help pay his debts.

In 1970, his family committed him to a Denver psychiatric hospital because of his cocaine addiction and paranoia. After leaving the hospital later that year, he returned to Las Vegas, where he was an "official greeter" at Caesars Palace.

Louis spent his last four years in a wheelchair before dying of a heart attack at 66 on April 12, 1981 in Las Vegas. He was given a military burial in Arlington National Cemetery at the request of President Ronald Reagan. In death, like in life, Joe Louis was a hero.

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