Excerpt: A Left-Hook to Racism

By Dave Zirin
Updated: October 16, 2005

Joe Louis -- Excerpt: A Left-Hook to RacismNEW YORK, NY—No sport has chewed athletes up and spit them out — especially black athletes — quite like boxing. For the very few who “make it,” it is never the sport of choice. Boxing has always been for the poor, for people born at the absolute margins of society. The first boxers in the United States were slaves. Southern plantation owners amused themselves by putting together the strongest slaves and having them fight it out while wearing iron collars.

After the abolition of slavery, boxing was unique among sports because it was desegregated as early as the turn of the last century. This was not because the people who ran boxing were in any way progressive. They make the people who run boxing today resemble gentlemen of great character. Those early promoters simply wanted to make a buck off the rampant racism in American society by pitting black vs. white for public spectacle. Unwittingly, these early fight financiers opened up a space in which the white supremacist ideas of the day could be challenged. This was the era of deeply racist pseudo-science. The attitude of the social Darwinist quacks was that blacks were not only mentally inferior but also physically inferior to whites. Blacks were cast as too lazy and too undisciplined to ever be taken seriously as athletes.

When Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight-boxing champion in 1908, his victory created a serious crisis for these ideas. The media whipped up in a frenzy about the need for a “Great White Hope” to restore order to the world. Former champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to restore that order, saying, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

At the fight, which took place in 1910, the ringside band played, “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” and promoters led the nearly all-white crowd in the chant “Kill the nigger.” But Johnson was faster, stronger, and smarter than Jeffries, knocking him out with ease. After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the country — in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attempting to enter black neighborhoods and blacks fighting back.

This reaction to a boxing match was the most widespread simultaneous racial uprising in the U.S. until the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Right-wing religious groups immediately organized a movement to ban boxing, and Congress actually passed a law that prohibited the showing of boxing films. Black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, pushed Johnson to condemn the African-American uprising. But Johnson remained defiant. He not only spoke out on all issues of the day, he also broke racist social taboos by marrying white women, and as a result faced harassment and persecution for most of his life. Johnson was forced into exile in 1913 on the trumped-up charge of transporting a white woman across state lines for prostitution.

The “Johnson backlash” meant that it would be 20 years before the rise of another black heavyweight champ — “the Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis. Louis was quiet where Johnson had been outspoken. An all-white management team handled Louis very carefully, and had a set of rules he had to follow, including, “never be photographed with a white woman, never go to a club by yourself, and never speak unless spoken to.” But the Brown Bomber’s timid public face became fierce in the ring. Louis scored 69 victories in 72 professional fights — 55 of them knockouts.

Despite the docile image demanded by his handlers, Joe Louis — and his dominance in the ring — represented dignity and resistance to Blacks and to the radicalizing working class of the 1930s. This played out most famously during Louis’s two fights against German boxer Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938. German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler promoted Schmeling as the epitome of “Aryan greatness,” and in their first bout, Schmeling knocked out Louis. Hitler and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels had a field day, and the southern press in the United States laughed it up. One columnist for the New Orleans Picayune wrote, “I guess this proves who really is the master race.”

The Louis-Schmeling rematch in 1938 was even more politically loaded — a physical referendum on Hitler, the Jim Crow South, and antiracism. The U.S. Communist Party organized radio listenings of the fight from Harlem to Birmingham that became mass meetings — complete with armed guards at the door. Hitler closed down movie houses so all of Germany would be compelled to listen to the fight. The cinema doors probably should have been kept open; Louis devastated Schmeling in one round, with lightning combinations that stunned the big German. In a notorious move, Hitler cut all of Germany ‘s radio power when it was clear that the knockout was coming.

The Brown Bomber held the heavyweight title for 12 years, the longest reign in history. He beat all comers, the overwhelming majority of them white, successfully defending his title a record 25 times. He was, according to poet Maya Angelou, “The one invincible Negro, the one who stood up to the white man and beat him down with his fists. He in a sense carried so many of our hopes, and maybe even our dreams of vengeance.” Thirty years after the fight against Schmeling, Martin Luther King Jr. reinforced its significance by reminding readers of Why We Can’t Wait that

More than 25 years ago, one of the Southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the victim reacted in this novel situation. The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came the words, “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis