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America’s Great Black Hope
When Joe Louis of the United States met Max Schmeling of Germany for the Heavyweight Championship of the World in 1938, politics and ballyhoo turned it into a battle between Freedom and Fascism—a foreshadowing of World War II
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
Week by week the darkening political situation of 1938 seemed to add to the fight’s special quality as a symbol of international and interracial tensions. The war was two years closer now than when Louis and Schmeling first battled, and even sports writers’ phrases like “the Teuton” or “Herr Max” rang more somberly than they had in the summer of 1936. Sports and politics grew harder to separate. American coverage of Schmeling’s tune-up fights and other activities now routinely included the reactions of the Nazi papers and sports authorities, the political mood of the German fight crowds, and Schmeling’s Hitler salutes after his victories. Even Joe Jacobs, Schmeling’s American manager, joined in the Nazi salute after one fight in Germany. “You gotta do it there or else,” Jacobs explained. “Anyway I had my fingers crossed. I’m 560 per cent Jewish.” In trying to promote Jewish acceptance of the second Louis-Schmeling fight, Jacobs volunteered a bizarre analysis of the political situation in the Reich: “Most of the trouble with the Jews over there is caused by the Jews in this country. Why, everybody’s happy over there. Everybody’s spending money like it was water, and talk of war makes the Germans laugh. Why, they even have synagogues still open over there. I know because I went to one three times one day. No one said anything to me because I was Jewish. They treated me like a king. …”
Meanwhile, a commentator for The Nation typified the strident tone of those who opposed the rematch. I. Q. Gross called Schmeling “a Nazi commodity” and Hitler’s “close friend,” and passed along a baseless rumor that “Schmeling is scheduled to take a leading post in Hitler’s Cabinet as director of physical education for German youth, presumably to make them fit for the next fascist aggression.” (During the war Schmeling would attain the rank of sergeant in the paratroopers—his highest “post” in the German government.) Gross went on to say that “thousands of Nazis, many in Storm Troop uniforms, have been ordered to attend the fight by officials of the German-American Bund.”
Rumors and then counterrumors abounded. A German boxing expert said Schmeling would have to win by a knockout because American officials would not give him a fair decision. On this side of the Atlantic a story spread that Schmeling would be imprisoned by Hitler if he lost the fight to a black.
Joe Louis was a hero to large sections of the American black population, and that did nothing to ease the tensions surrounding the fight. Black feelings about the champion ran deep. When Louis beat Braddock, black militant Malcolm X once recalled, “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.” The extra racial twist provided by Nazi pro-Aryan propaganda was not lost on American Negroes. Historian John Hope Franklin writes that after Schmeling knocked out “the athletic idol of the Negro race” in 1936, the average Negro could not speak of Nazis “without a feeling of personal antagonism.” The racism engulfing Louis’ career in the 1930’s, if less ferocious than that of Jack Johnson’s day, remained vicious enough—even without the addition of Nazi propaganda. It was not always pleasant to be a “colored” celebrity in America. A look through contemporary press coverage of the champion can make a modern reader squirm. The champion’s speech was debased to make him a minstrel darky. Asked how he felt about using a bed where Washington had slept, he was supposed to have said, “Mistah Washington sho’ know how to pick beds.” A newspaper cartoon carried the caption: “Use the word ‘defeat,’ Joseph.” “Sho. I pops ’em on de chin and dey drags ’em out by de feet.” The sports editor of the New York Times explained that Joe would use no planned tactics against Schmeling because he was too stupid to master a strategy and fought by “instinct.” The Literary Digest said that “one characteristic of Negro fighters is their inability to worry.” The Denver Post held forth on Louis’ fervent cravings for fried chicken. And so it went.
If the media presented the champion as slightly subhuman, at least his skills commanded respect. But the racism in articles on Louis’ black fans was unrelieved. Story after story perpetuated the stereotype of blacks as rowdy, irresponsible, grinning children who lived for occasions to parade, gamble, sing, and dance. The Literary Digest spoke of Joe’s fans as “the Harlem-tailored, gold-toothed, dark-hued gentry” (while calling the champion “the kinky-haired, thick-lipped … none-too-intellectual … shuffling, ex-Alabama pick-aninny”). If Schmeling won, said the magazine, “there won’t be a dime left in all Harlem.”
On May 3, 1938, a cheering German crowd saw Schmeling off on the S.S. Bremen . Six days later he docked in New York, and the sports pages bannered: “Schmeling Arrives Confident He’ll Beat Louis and Be First to Regain Title.”