Memorial to Joe Louis

Woodward at Jefferson in downtown Detroit adjoining Hart Plaza

The Brown Bomber was the nation's first black sports hero widely acclaimed and admired by whites. Born in Lafayette, Alabama in 1914, his father moved to Detroit during the Great Northern migration of World War I. Joe Louis lived with relatives in Alabama until age 12 when he moved North. Raised in Detroit, his parents had high aspirations for their children. One of his sisters served as principal of a Detroit school for decades. Louis' mother took him to ballet classes.

Jim Crow dominated most American sports until after World War II, but in the North, the Golden Gloves boxing competition was open to African Americans. By 1932, Louis had defeated all opponents in Detroit and Chicago, so boxing cognoscenti recognized him as the most talented young boxer to come along in decades. In 1934, Louis began fighting for purses and, just three years later, defeated James Braddock to become the world's heavy weight champion.

Those who only appreciate his pugilistic skills overlook the extraordinarily important role that Joe Louis played in this nation's troubled racial history. Early in the Twentieth Century, boxing was segregated, but those who followed the sport recognized that a black man, Jack Johnson born in Galveston, Texas in 1878, could defeat the reigning white heavyweight champion, the Irishman, Tommy Burns. The Jim Crow practices ruled out a Johnson-Burns match in the United States. Finally, they fought on December 26, 1908 in Sydney, Australia. Johnson won, becoming the first black heavyweight champion. Boxing authorities in the United States demanded strict racial segregation and had no problem recognizing Jack Johnson as the leading black heavyweight, but were unwilling to recognize him as world champion. Johnson did not abide such Jim Crow practices and taunted the reigning white champion, Jim Jefferies, into a fight. At this time in our history, racial stereotypes held that blacks could not compete successfully with whites in any endeavor, including sports. Many states prohibited interracial matches, but Nevada had no such law. Jim Jefferies was given the nickname "The Great White Hope", but he lost to Johnson on July 4, 1910 in Reno in a fight that provoked racial rioting in many American cities.

Jack Johnson symbolized all that many whites both hated and feared in black men. He was, arguably, the strongest man in the world, but was also sophisticated, knowledgeable and never deferential to whites. Indeed, he was assertive, aggressive and flamboyantly promiscuous with numerous white women. At this time, Booker T. Washington preached accommodation and was widely praised by whites for his racial views. W. E. B. DuBois was the scholar who consistently challenged Washington, but Jack Johnson was a much better-known black man who confrontationally challenged whites in the ways Washington opposed. The continued pugilistic success of Johnson upset many whites so the Wilson Administration in 1913 prosecuted Johnson for violations of the Mann Act, that is, taking a woman across state lines for purposes of commercial sex. Indeed, some of Johnson's many female associates earned their living in the commercial sex industry. Johnson fled to France and lived in his typical flamboyant style. In 1915, he agreed to fight the leading white heavyweight, Jess Willard, in Cuba. This time Johnson lost. Many observers thought this he threw this fight in hopes of being able to return to the United States, but there is no agreement about this. After the Republican Party took over the White House in the 1920 election, Johnson returned to the USA. Following the migration of many blacks to the North in World War I, the party of Lincoln realized the importance of the urban black vote. Johnson served one year in federal prison and was then released, presumably as an effort by Republicans to ensure that northern blacks would continue to support the party of Lincoln.

Joe Louis was just the opposite. He never challenged this nation's racial hierarchy. He gave the impression of being a diligent, but exceptionally talented, boxer whose only interest was in the heavyweight belt. He was well equipped for the prominence the next role that the nation cast upon Joe Louis. The National Socialists in Germany frequently stressed the genetic superiority of their race and tied this to German dominance in intellectual endeavors, engineering and in sports. Indeed, Adolph Hitler assumed the Berlin Olympics would prove to the world the German athletes were the most accomplished. Hitler did not remain in Berlin's Olympic Stadium to see Jesse Owens—the black runner from Ohio State; win his fourth gold medal.

Max Schmeling was the leading German heavyweight. The National Socialists promoted him as symbolizing the remarkable strength of pure German stock. In 1936, he fought Joe Louis and, for the first time, Louis was knocked out. German publicists interpreted this victory as proving Nordic superiority. Boxing, at this time, was a very popular sport with millions of fans since it served as a route out of poverty for urban Jews, Italians, blacks and the Irish. Then, as now, it was a sport where minorities could move up a rung on the status ladder. The 1936 victory of Schmeling was seen as an affront to this nation's pride, so the major topic on the sports pages concerned when would Detroit's Joe Louis get a rematch. For the first time, a black man symbolized the strength and virtue of the nation.

The most famous fight in the nation's history took place in Yankee Stadium on June 23, 1938. Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round, ensuring his rank as one of the nation's most popular sports figures. The fight was such a one-sided victory for the United States that no effort was ever made to schedule a rematch.

Racial issues were a major concern for the Roosevelt Administration at the start of World War II. With just modest exceptions late in the War, the Roosevelt Administration maintained Jim Crow in the Armed Forces. In both world wars, black intellectuals questioned the wisdom of drafting black men to fight for a nation that denied justice to its black citizens. By 1942, the increasingly popular black press argued that African Americans were fighting for the Double V; that is, victory over discrimination with the United States and victory over the Germans and Japanese abroad. This prompted Attorney General Biddle to close all black newspapers for the duration of the war.

With thousands of southern blacks and whites moving to northern cities, federal officials feared there would there be many racial riots. The Sojourner Truth violence in Detroit in early 1942 seemed a harbinger of violence to come. Fortunately, major rioting was pretty much limited to the 1943 events in Detroit and New York. Another vexing issue flowed from assigning northern blacks to the South where most military bases were located. Blacks men raised in Los Angeles, New York or Boston faced racial segregation all the time, but it was not state imposed. Many black men knew their rights and asserted them in the South, producing great trouble for the military. Jackie Robinson, for instance, was discharged from the Army after forcefully challenging the Jim Crow segregation of local buses that ran onto federally-operated military bases in the South.

The Roosevelt Administration recognized that Joe Louis was the ideal symbol of black support for World War II. He was drafted and then spent the war years touring bases to build morale by sparing with local fighters. Perhaps, he was the strongest symbol that the Administration had of unquestioned black support for the war but whites troops and officers were also thrilled by the visits of Joe Louis and the numerous boxing exhibitions he gave in his role as the primary symbol of black support for the World War II.

Joe Louis defended his title 25 times between 1937 and 1949 when he retired. To mitigate his financial woes, he returned to the ring in 1950, but was defeated by Rocky Marciano.

Federal administrations can use people for a variety of purposes. Alas, Joe Louis was used in a very different manner by the Internal Revenue Service after World War II. Louis resumed his career, and in this era of great prosperity, won huge purses. At that time, the Internal Revenue Service assumed that people would settle up at the end of the year, but Louis was extremely poor at managing his money. If he had money, he spent it with his friends or gave it away. Quite a few people, including his second wife, developed elaborate strategies to keep Louis and his money together, but they totally failed.

Very quickly, Louis found himself hopelessly in debt to the IRS. He was not alone since many other high income individuals paid no quarterly taxes and then found themselves unable to pay Uncle Sam at the end of the year. Joe Louis fell into bankruptcy and his debts mounted daily with the interest payments the government demanded. The IRS publicized his problems widely. What better way to threaten rich Americans than to remind them of the terrible plight of the once-rich Joe Louis. In his later years, he depended upon contributions from friends. Interestingly, Max Schmeling did not enjoy being the symbol of the Third Reich and kept a low profile during World War II. While in New York in the 1930s, Schmeling became friends with Jim Farley, President Roosevelt's prosperous advisor. After World War II, Farley went to Germany, found an impoverished Max Schmeling and set him up with a lucrative Coca Cola franchise. Schmeling became a rich man but stayed in contact with Joe Louis. After his death, his friends revealed that Schmeling regularly sent money to the impoverished Joe Louis. I believe that Schmeling helped to pay for the funeral of Joe Louis

Sports Illustrated presented this sculpture to the City of Detroit on the 100th anniversary of the organization that developed into the Detroit Institute of Art. It is the work of the Mexican sculptor: Robert Graham. A rather similar rendition of the powerful arm and fist of Louis sculpted by Edward Hamilton is in the lobby of the nearby Cobo arena. This artwork was erected while Coleman Young served as mayor. Some cynical whites thought this fist summarized the feeling of Mayor Coleman Young about the overwhelming white suburban ring. Louis and Young were both strong men, but the resemblance ended there. Those cynics were also mixed up with regard to geography since the fist of Louis points south toward Canada.

Robert Graham, a well known artist born in Mexico City in 1938, sculpted this Fist of Joe Louis. Graham moved to San Jose, California in 1949 and was educted at San Jose State and the San Francisco Art Insitute. He worked in several sites in the United States and Europe and then settled in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles. Perhaps his best known work, completed in 1997, is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC. Graham sculpted a life-size statue of President Roosevelt seated in a wheel chair along with panels depicting 54 federal programs initiated by that president. Another of his prominant accomplishments are the doors and the entryway of the new Roman Catholic Cathederal of Our Lady of the Angeles in Los Angeles, completed in 2002. In addition to memoralizing Joe Louis in Detroit, Graham designed a monument honoring Duke Ellington in New York City and one for Charlie "Bird" Parker in Kansas City

Sculptor: Robert Graham
Date of Completion: 1986
Materials: Bronze and painted steel
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description Revised: December 31, 2008

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