Commentary

Louis was 'what his own community needed him to be'

Joe Louis' success in the ring may not have ended racial segregation in America, but it did help pave the way for future generations of civil rights activists.

Originally Published: February 20, 2008
By Franklin McNeil | Special to ESPN.com

Throughout her history, America has experienced good times and bad times.

Today, she's going through a very different time: The economy is struggling and the war in Iraq shows no sign of abating.

During tough times, America has relied heavily on her people. African-Americans have played significant roles in helping the nation right its ship.

And few Americans, black or white, have contributed to the nation's social development quite like Joe Louis. His impact on American society still resonates.

To call him the greatest heavyweight ever would simply be disrespectful. Louis' accomplishments and sacrifices during the 1930s and '40s have helped shape the course of American society, especially race relations.

It began on June 19, 1936. Louis had won his first 27 professional fights and there was talk of a potential title shot against then-heavyweight champion James Braddock.

Getting a shot at the heavyweight title was no small matter. Heavyweight champion was the most prestigious honor in sports then, and no African-American had received a shot at it since Dec. 26, 1908, when Jack Johnson -- the first black world heavyweight titleholder -- defeated Tommy Burns.

In the segregated America of the 1930s, having a black man as heavyweight champion was of extreme importance in the black community. It would send a message to white America that given equal opportunity, African-Americans could succeed and be productive citizens.

This ideal wasn't lost on Louis, who had become a highly celebrated figure among African-Americans. There was no doubt in Louis' mind that he'd be the second black world heavyweight champ. But first, he had to dispose of Max Schmeling.

The fight with Schmeling was viewed by Louis as a formality. He was a huge favorite and no one envisioned him having difficulty coming away victorious. Everyone sang his praise months before the bout and Louis heard each chorus.

But with the hopes of an entire community on his shoulders, Louis failed to train properly. He partied hardy. And on fight night, Schmeling took him to school. Louis was stopped in 12.

"It was a devastating blow to blacks in this country," said Louis' son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr. "They were both contenders and my father, frankly, didn't prepare for the fight in the manner in which he should have. He took it for granted.

"Blacks all across this country were totally defeated. It was almost like with every blow that Max Schmeling struck to my father, it was a blow to every individual, in particular blacks, listening on the radio. When he finally went down in the 12th round, all of the hopes, the dreams, the desires and the beliefs of equality went out in one single evening, with one single fight."

It was an experience Louis would never repeat. A year later, Louis would get his shot at Braddock. And he'd become heavyweight champion via an eighth-round knockout.

But Louis' greatest achievement and the one that would make him an American hero took place June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium. There he'd face Schmeling for a second time -- only the stakes were much higher.

Nazi Germany and its leader, Adolf Hitler, espoused Arian superiority. In Hitler's view, a second Schmeling win over Louis would not only provide further proof of Arian superiority, but Germany's superiority over the United States.

Unlike in their first meeting, Louis wasn't just representing the hopes of African-Americans, but of an entire nation. Despite the previous loss, Louis was as confident as ever. The big difference this time was Louis trained like never before.

His dedication paid off immediately. Louis stopped Schmeling at 2:04 of the first round and all of America rejoiced.

"That's when Joe Louis … transcended to become a true American hero," Barrow said. "All of America, not just black America, was rooting for him in a way they had never done so before. Because it was sending a signal to the ever-growing powerful Germany that at the end of the day they did not have the master race."

[+] EnlargePrivate Joe Louis
Keystone/Getty ImagesJoe Louis, who served in the army, who train for fights at the Fort Dix U.S. Army camp.
Louis' win over Schmeling didn't end racial segregation in America, but it helped pave the way for future generations of civil rights activists. The victory made it easier for Jackie Robinson to break Major League Baseball's color barrier.

"If there had not been a Joe Louis … who was so admired and loved in this country, I dare say, Branch Rickey would not have made the move with Jackie Robinson," Barrow said. "Joe Louis really was a pivotal figure in challenging America's conscious."

Louis' dedication to and love for America did not end with his win over Schmeling. Later, he would join the United States Army, which was segregated, and donated two of his fight purses -- one to the Army relief fund, another to the Navy relief fund -- in the effort to defeat Germany during World War II.

Despite his efforts to advance democracy and champion the right of blacks in America, Louis wasn't without his critics. His refusal to embrace the nationalist wing of the civil rights movement during the 1960s resulted in many activists labeling him an "Uncle Tom."

Longtime New York City-based civil rights activist Bob Law says the attacks on Louis from members of the African-American community must be revisited. Law believes a comprehensive understanding of Louis, who ended his professional boxing career with a record of 69-3-0 (55 KOs), and his role in America's social growth will change many minds.

Joe Louis was a reflection of his era. Joe Louis was a hero and what his own community needed him to be.

-- Civil rights activist Bob Law

"For his time, Joe Louis was what the black community needed him to be," said Law, who is a radio talk-show host and filmmaker. "He was really all that he could have been at that time, based on what he understood, what he knew and the environment he came up in.

"Joe Louis was a reflection of his era. Joe Louis was a hero and what his own community needed him to be. And he should not be dismissed for not being more. He fits within the continuity of the flow of history."

Even today, that flow continues. An example of Louis' ability to transcend racial lines and its positive impact can be seen in this year's Democratic presidential race.

"It's a long connecting of dots. It has to start somewhere, but if it doesn't sustain itself, then the beginning doesn't produce the end," Barrow said. "There are millions of dots between Joe Louis and Barack Obama. The exciting thing is that Barack Obama is where he is today similarly to how Joe Louis gained the prestige that he did.

"My father was an American hero in the context of the '30s and '40s, because white America embraced him. Barack Obama is achieving the success he is today because he is transcending race and he has a great appeal to women, and blacks, and men and younger people. There are similarities between my father and Barack Obama because his base is broader than just blacks."

Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.