America’s Great Black Hope


A friend of mine still laments the deprivation he suffered after the first fight between Joe Louis and former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling of Germany in 1936. “I attended a dreary boarding school back then,” he recalls. “Its only claim to excellence was the cinnamon rolls served for Sunday breakfast. Well, we were all boxing fans there, and those of us with sense knew that Joe Louis was unbeatable. When the odds were announced eight to one in Joe’s favor, there was as much betting in that dreadful institution as the scarcity of Schmeling backers would permit. Imagine my delight when I chanced upon a fool willing to venture his two weekly cinnamon rolls against my pledge of sixteen. We were all distraught when the German knocked Joe out; but for me—at an age when eight weeks without rolls was an eternity—the future was a boundless Sahara, and it is well that no means of painless suicide was readily at hand.”

Schmeling’s win was an upset indeed, and my friend was not the only one to lose his bread on the Brown Bomber. But there was to be another day, another fight—perhaps the most “political” fight in boxing history—a symbolic encounter midway between a professional sporting event and a minor international incident.

Joe Louis (born Joseph Louis Barrow in Alabama in 1914) began boxing professionally, out of Detroit, in July, 1934. By the following May his record was 22-0, and most of his wins had been knockouts. Joe Louis was ready for the big time.

Luckily for the young boxer, the big time was also ready for a Joe Louis. It was twenty years since the Havana afternoon when Jess Willard, the Great White Hope, had dethroned Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. Johnson, to put it mildly, had not been popular with most white fans. They had seen him as cocky, “uppity.” His way of toying with opponents stuck in the national craw. So did the fact that he had married two white women, and that he smiled as he battered white men into helplessness. In the years between Johnson and Louis an unwritten boxing law had kept black fighters from getting a crack at the heavyweight title, and in some states there were, for a time, legal sanctions against interracial boxing matches. But by the midthirties some of the racial tensions of Johnson’s era had eased. The popularity of several black champions and contenders in lower weight divisions helped to make Louis’ bid for the heavyweight crown acceptable. Then too, Joe Louis was splendidly cast for his role. In the vulgar parlance of the time, he was a “good nigger”; he “knew his place.” Both by nature and through careful nurturing at the hands of John Roxborough and Julian Black, his managers, Louis was everything Jack Johnson before him and Muhammad AIi after him refused to be. The young fighter was modest, taciturn, generally gracious to those he fought. “And for God’s sake,” Roxborough had commanded his charge, “after you beat a white opponent, don’t smile! ” If Joe occasionally would do something peculiar, such as refusing to be photographed eating watermelon, still the tone and terms of his refusal could be called uppity only by out-and-out bigots. A phrase which today reeks of sanctimonious white supremacy hovered about the fighter throughout his career: Joe Louis, decreed the sporting press, was “a credit to his race.”

The generally sad state of heavyweight boxing was also propitious to the advent of an exciting young fighter—even a black one. The years between Gene Tunney’s retirement in 1928 and Joe Louis’ climb to the title in 1937 were dominated by mediocre heavyweights. The tournament to pick Tunney’s successor ended in 1930, with Max Schmeling the winner on a disputed foul over Jack Sharkey. By 1935, in the quickest turnover in boxing history, four more men had won the title: Sharkey (in a rematch memorable only for the lament spoken by Joe Jacobs, Schmeling’s manager, “We was robbed!”); Primo Camera (the “Ambling Alp,” a huge but bumbling Italian fighter); Max Baer (the “Clown Prince,” a boxer almost as amusing as Muhammad AIi, but not, alas, otherwise comparable); and James J. Braddock (the “Cinderella Man”—so called because his drab performances had nearly pushed him into retirement two years before he struggled his way up to the crown). Boxing historians regard Max Schmeling as the best of the lot, but the compliment is not overpowering. A new fighter with the 24-carat championship aura of a Dempsey or a Tunney was what the game needed, the experts agreed, but if no White Hope was to be found, maybe this Brown Bomber from Detroit would do.

Louis’ sixth-round knockout of Carnera, in Yankee Stadium on June 25, 1935, made him a top contender. It was his first New York bout and his first fight promoted by Mike Jacobs, who, mainly because of his tie to Louis, would control New York boxing in the coming decade. After he beat Camera, no one could deny Louis’ right to a title fight on racial grounds. He would get a crack at Braddock if his fists earned one.