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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
Louis kept firing—swift, body-ripping blows, thrown from a slugger’s flat-footed stance. Schmeling did his best to withstand the onslaught. Seeing the films today, one is awed not by the fight’s brevity but by its length—how could the German endure so much?
Seemingly frozen by Schmeling’s shriek, referee Donovan took a few seconds before stepping in, waving Louis back, and beginning to count for a standing knockdown. Schmeling lurched off the ropes and wove toward the center of the ring. Louis met him, and a left and a furious right to the head sent the challenger to the canvas for a count of three. No veteran in control of himself would have risen so soon.
Louis attacked again. A left and a right snapped Schmeling’s head around and dropped him for a second time. He landed on his knees, his hands lightly resting on the floor, and, incredibly, rose at the count of one. A fierce left hook and yet another of Louis’ whistling rights sent him tumbling for the last time. As his back twitched convulsively on the canvas, his trainer threw in the towel. That gesture of surrender was no longer recognized in New York, and the referee whirled and threw the cloth out of the ring. When he turned back to Schmeling (the timekeeper’s count stood at five), Donovan saw that the challenger was helpless and waved his arms to end the fight.
Schmeling was soon up, his face unmarked, and was able to push through the mob in the ring and congratulate the winner. Shortly thereafter he was rushed to a hospital, his driver taking a circuitous route to avoid the bedlam in Harlem. As Louis’ fans filled the twenty blocks of Seventh Avenue closed off for street dancing, cables from Goebbels and other ranking Nazis began to arrive expressing condolences and assuring everyone that Max would not be arrested. As the columnists hurried to file stories abusing Schmeling for crying foul or instructing him on what to tell Hitler when he got back to Germany, ten thousand hometown fans danced in the streets of Detroit beneath a waving banner that proclaimed, “Joe Louis Knocked Out Hitler.”
There was black jubilation in the rural South, too—of another, quieter kind. President Jimmy Carter told part of the story in his autobiography, Why Not the Best?: “All of our black neighbors came to see Daddy when the second Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight was to take place. There was intense interest, and they asked if they could listen to the fight. We propped the radio up in the open window of our house, and we and our visitors sat and stood under a large mulberry tree nearby. … My father was deeply disappointed in the outcome. … There was no sound from anyone in the yard, except a polite ‘Thank you, Mister Earl’ offered to my father. Then, our several dozen visitors filed across the dirt road, across the railroad track, and quietly entered a house about a hundred yards away out in the field. At that point, pandemonium broke loose inside that house, as our black neighbors shouted and yelled in celebration of the Louis victory. But all the curious, accepted proprieties of a racially segregated society had been carefully observed.”
Before morning a rumor that Max had died from the beating he took was spreading through New York. The New York Times ’s switchboard handled twenty-one hundred calls about his condition, and the hospital’s phones were so badly tied up that it was compelled to issue radio bulletins.
The next day the German press said that the fight was too short to prove much. One German fan was quoted as saying, “Yes, Schmeling may have been almost killed, but Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony still lives on.”
As a symbol of American strength in a time of growing world tensions, as an American rebuttal of Nazi racist propaganda, and as a sweet moment for black Americans in an era filled with bitter ones, the Brown Bomber’s triumph over the Teuton became a memory to savor.
The fight still survives as memory and symbol, but even two weeks after the bout its intrinsic unimportance in world affairs was clear. As the ship carried Max Schmeling—still bedridden—back toward Europe, in early July, and as the champion’s managers sought new opponents, there was no evidence that the march of events toward another world war had been hastened or hindered in the slightest by Joe Louis’fists.
Schmeling’s arrival in Berlin, July 9, was less important sports news for Americans than yesterday’s baseball scores. It was, to be sure, a tribute to Louis’ power that Max still sometimes needed support when he walked, but the notion that the loss to a Negro might lead to a prison term for a gallant, aging sportsman who had done his best was too ridiculous to bring up again. The hullabaloo was over. Max Schmeling was home. The quiet crowd that greeted him numbered about two dozen.