Joe Louis, famously known to the world as the “Brown Bomber,” was a source of pride and a positive symbol for African Americans. He was born Joseph Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914, in Lexington, Alabama. Louis’ boxing name completely omitted his original surname, a change done in an effort to keep his mother from discovering his newfound passion. His parents, Lillie Reese and Munroe Barrow, were sharecroppers who struggled financially throughout his childhood, a period that Louis recalled with sadness as filled with poverty and despair. After his father was committed to the Searcy Hospital for the Criminal Insane, Louis was raised by his stepfather, Pat Brooks, whom he considered his father. In 1926, at the age of 12, he began working at the Ford assembly plant in Detroit, Michigan, after his stepfather and mother migrated the family there following threats by the Ku Klux Klan. In Detroit, the young Louis received his boxing training and rose to the heights of pugilistic excellence.
In the midst of the Great Depression, on July 4, 1934, Louis, fighting against Jack Kracken, began his professional career as a boxer under the guidance of Jack Blackburn. With Blackburn in his camp, Louis went on to fight such notable boxers as Primo Carrera, Max Baer, and Cecil “Seal” Harris. On June 22, 1937, in Chicago, Illinois, Louis fought James Braddock for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. In a fight that lasted eight rounds and ended with a knockout, Joe Louis became the world champion, a position he held for 12 years until 1949, the longest reigning heavyweight boxing champion of all time.
The most sensational of Louis's fights were those against German fighter Max Schmeling. Both Louis and Schmeling were heralded as politically symbolic due to the extreme contradictions in the fighters and the nations they represented. Schmeling, a Light Heavyweight Champion, lost two very pivotal bouts against Jack Sharkey and Max Baer. He began making a career comeback at the same time that Adolf Hitler was coming to power and Schmeling was expected to defeat Louis as a testament to the undeniable superiority of the Aryan race. Ironically, Schmeling was not a member of the Nazi Party and did not have any racial animus toward Louis. Louis, a hero to African Americans and a symbol of their potential in America, was supposed to triumph over Schmeling and conquer the evils of the Nazi party, Germany, and Hitler.
Their first match occurred on June 19, 1936, ironically on Emancipation Day, Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. On their first meeting, Schmeling won over Louis with a 12-round knockout. By their second confrontation, on June 22, 1938, Louis had lost all of the ego and immaturity that marked the earlier fight. In a first round knockout totaling two minutes and four seconds at Yankee Stadium, Louis defeated Schmeling. A third fight to the tie never occurred due to World War II, yet Louis's emblematic win was a huge public victory both for the United States and for African Americans. Proving that truth is stranger than fiction, Louis and Schmeling became good friends after the war, and Schmeling even paid for Louis's funeral.
Louis, who had registered for the peacetime draft in 1940, enlisted in the army on January 10, 1942 and reported for duty at Camp Upton on Long Island, New York, two days later. His basic training was with an all–African American unit. During his military service, Louis primarily performed exhibition matches, toured bases, and led a group of other fighters called the Joe Louis Troupe, all in an effort to improve morale. He donated the proceeds from all of his wartime fights (96 in total) to the Army and Navy Relief Funds until his discharge on October 1, 1945.
Although some argue that Louis was a tool for American propaganda, the Jim Crow era did not permit African Americans much freedom. Likewise, Louis used his reputation and connections to get a group of African American soldiers, one of whom was Jackie Robinson, into Officer Candidate School. Additionally, the desegregation of military buses came after Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, another boxer, were almost arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus. By the time of his discharge, the 32-year-old Louis was not the same fighter he had once been. He did continue to defend his title, but retired in 1949. In 1950, Louis attempted a comeback, and though he was 8-2 before his final retirement, he never again held the heavyweight title. He died of a heart attack on April 12, 1981, and President Ronald Reagan waived the eligibility rules to allow him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
See also African Americans—World War II; Robinson, Jack R.
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