1937 Fifty Years Ago

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After knocking out his opponent with a sledgehammer right in the eighth round, Joe Louis became the world’s heavyweight boxing champion in Chicago’s Comiskey Park on June 22. “Louis was young, strong, and good,” recalled the defending titleholder, James J. Braddock. “Oh, he was good . And I did my best, but come the eighth round, I was finished.” When the final punch landed, Braddock buckled and kissed the canvas.

But Louis was more than a phenomenal boxer. Because he occupied a more prominent place in the news than any other black, he came to represent his race for both whites and blacks. At first Louis was unpopular among whites and subjected to the usual stereotypes, a fact reflected in the press, where Louis was nicknamed “the dark destroyer” and was quoted speaking “darkie” dialect. The Literary Digest called him “the kinkyhaired, thick-lipped … none-too-intellectual … shuffling, ex-Alabama pickaninny.” Before the Braddock fight, Life had this to say: “The challenger rarely smiles. Here Louis grins because a workout is over. He hates workouts and getting up.” But gradually Louis’s gentlemanliness and his continuing chain of victories eroded the stereotype, and the press—and white America—began to grant the boxer the respect that was his due.

In the black community, Louis had diehard fans from the start. The night of his victory against Braddock, thousands of overjoyed men and women poured from their homes into the streets of Harlem and Chicago’s South Side. Malcolm X described it: “All the Negroes in Lansing, like Negroes everywhere, went wildly happy with the greatest celebration of race pride our generation had ever known. Every Negro boy old enough to walk wanted to be the next Brown Bomber.”

Louis went on easily to conquer his arch-rival, the German Max Schmeling. In 1949 he retired, having defeated all of his twenty-five challengers, most of them by knockout.

•May 6: The German dirigible Hindenburg burns at its mooring tower in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing thirty-six and ending public interest in airship travel.

•June 7: The movie actress and sex symbol Jean Harlow dies at age twentysix of kidney failure.