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What about Joe Louis?

Feb 3, 2004  By Jason Petock
He was a lone black hero in a predominately white America. Joe Louis’ life for the most part was a constant media event. Even in the end writers praised him half heartedly, void of entire respect because of his financial ruin and debilitating dementia.

Louis deserved much more than that and he still does. He was the first African American to truly gain lasting fame and notoriety in the 20th century.

In 1934 he began his professional boxing career, a time when there were no blacks who continually appeared in white newspapers or held positions of public importance. The only other notable African Americans that were recognized during Louis’ time were W.E.B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph. And you would have a hard time getting White America to identify those men during those days.

Why is Joe Louis so forgotten?

He had his first fight on July 4, 1934 against Jack Kracken, a club fighter, at the Bacon Casino on Chicago’s South Side. His trainer was Jack Blackburn, who was once a fair lightweight boxer himself.

Blackburn told Joe prior to his first bout with Kracken, as he wrapped his hands, “You can’t get nowhere nowadays trying to outpoint fellows in the ring. It’s mighty hard for a colored boy to win decisions. The dice is loaded against you. You gotta knock ‘em out and keep knocking ‘em out to get anywhere.” Finishing taping Louis’ right hand he told him sternly, “Let your right fist be the referee. Don’t ever forget that. Let that right fist there be your referee.”

It was a shame that Joe’s most important characteristic to white readers and media back then was his skin color. Aside of his typical racist monikers concocted by the press like “Brown Bomber” and “Dark Destroyer” they also called him “Sepia Slugger”, “Mahogany Maimer”, “Dark Dynamiter” and the “Shufflin’ Shadow”. It’s also a disgrace that things were in such disarray (and still are) and that there was no one to defend the man, instead of just profit off of him.

Joe had a difficult time addressing the media in press conferences and the reporters took his frequent silence and stoic facial expressions as resentment and ignorance. The truth of the matter is that he was actually a very shy man.

Louis’ handlers wanted to make him into the anti – Jack Johnson. They persisted to make sure that Joe would indefinitely be dissociated from the memory of Johnson.

John Roxborough, one of his managers even went so far as to provide a list of 7 “commandments” or rules for the champion to abide by. They were as follows:

  1. He was never to have his picture taken along with a white woman.
  2. He was never to go into a nightclub alone.
  3. There would be no soft fights.
  4. There would be no fixed fights.
  5. He was never to gloat over a fallen opponent.
  6. He was to keep a “dead pan” in front of the cameras.
  7. He was to live and fight clean.

Joe Louis was an anomaly. He possessed incredible strength and stamina. He was also well known for his famed “6 inch punch”.

In praising Louis the press often belittled his greatness more than elevating it. He’s due his day.

Why isn’t there a national holiday for Joe Louis Barrow? That’s the very least that can be done for a man who left this world with what he entered it with. We should honor his memory and strive to preserve it. He was a great champion who needs to be heralded and remembered forever.

In closing, an old song that dock workers used to sing down in Florida comes to mind –
“Joe Louis hit him so hard he turned round and round-
He thought he was Alabama bound-
He made an effort to rise again-
But Joe Louis’ right cut him on the chin-
Weak on his knees and tried to rise-
Went down crying to the crowds surprise.”
The question must be asked – What about Joe Louis?.

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