Joe Louis: Motown’s Champion, America’s Idol

By Charles Hunter DeSander

America is seen as the land of opportunity, with a national ideal that people with the mindset of determination, hard work, dedication and a fighting spirit can accomplish what ever they want to in life. They might not be able to reach all of their goals, but any man or women at any given day, can rise up the occasion and give it a try. A place in this nation that could be seen as one of those states that with a fighting spirit, is Michigan, and one man that could represent that ideal of shooting for the top, is Joe Louis.

Before we delve in to the history and true impact that Joe Louis provided to both Michigan as well as the nation; we’d have to travel back to the roots of the sport he became a legend in, boxing.

Being heavyweight champion of the world was and still is seen as being the highest accolade that one man can reach in the entire world. The thought that one man, can be the strongest, slickest, fastest, and best fighter in the world. 1 man out of 7 billion being the recognized as the best, is something that can’t be disproven for the times. A man that can walk into any room and say “I can lick any son of a bitch in the house” and mean it and everyone would know it. That quote was said by the very first gloved heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan. From 1885 to 1892 the champion fought anybody and everybody who wanted that shot. If they were white. “I will not fight a Negro. I never have, and I never shall.”[1] With that phrase, the color line was set. For over 20 years since the boxing championship was created, and hundreds of years of the bareknuckle era, not one black man gained the title of the “baddest man on the planet”. 1908 the day after Christmas in Sydney, Australia, through major politics and hard core smack talk, Jack Johnson, became the first ever. And white America hated it.

At the turn of the twentieth century, racial tension ran high.  For example, according to the Charles Chestnut Archives,  over 2000 racially motivated lynchings occurred in the United States, many dating to this time period. In regards to Jack Johnson, he was bold, he was brash, he didn’t care what others thought of him; he spoke his mind and did what he wanted. Married white women, flaunted his wealth to the point of bribing police to get out of speeding tickets, gloated and taunted over fallen opponents (who were white) and smiled with those gold teeth that he had. One of the biggest and most influential fights in boxing history was July 4th, 1910 against James J. Jeffries, a fight called “The Fight of the Century.”  It was a fight against the former undefeated, undisputed, heavyweight champion, and the “great white hope” of the man that never “lost” the title against Johnson, a man dubbed by many a “black animal” of a person. For 15 rounds, the champion, the black champion delivered one of the biggest boxing beatdowns in history, to the point where police and portions of the crowd came in the ring to stop the fight.  He dismantled his challenger in front of former champions like John L. Sullivan, the man that drew the color line, James Corbett, and Tommy Burns, all of whom were shocked and distraught.

“Do not point your nose too high. Do not swell your chest too much. Do not boast too loudly. Do not be puffed up. Let not your ambitions be inordinate or take a wrong direction… Remember you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society today you were last week… You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none… No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno.”[2]

This was written by a respective newspaper for the time, and even though it is drastic and hugely racist and prejudiced for the time, this was the mainstream mindset for the nation, and what Joe Louis would have to fight against in the future.

Joe Louis’s story begins in Alabama under his birth name Joe Louis Barrow.  Born from a family of sharecroppers, he was raised by a single mother due to his father being put into an asylum when Louis was a baby.   He grew up with no father figure, his family was poor, he was one of eight children, and he was black. For the time, he was dealt the roughest hand that any American could have.   Because of these circumstances, his family, led by his mother, made the great migration north to the city of Detroit to get away from racial persecution. While in Detroit, with virtually little to no education, Joe Louis did odd jobs to help support his family such as moving, shipping ice and working at Ford Motor Company at the River Rouge Complex. As he worked, his mother still found time to help Louis progress his mind. Every week she gave him a quarter for violin lessons.  But after some time and some “criticism” from his friends, young Joe Louis took that money and spent it on locker rental at the Brewster Recreational Center where he learned to box. His mother would learn about this after a few weeks when the violin instructor asked where her student was. After a “come to Jesus” moment[3], his mother accepted and like many supporting mothers, said “if you are going to do this, be the best you can be.”

After winning the Golden Gloves (Prestigious Amateur Boxing Tournament) he turned pro in 1934 and dropped his last name and became just Joe Louis.  Within 3 years, he built a successful 24-0 record (12-0 in his very first year) beating 2 former champions, including six-and-a-half-foot giant Primo Carnera, and Max Baer. Along the way he was given is famous nickname “The Brown Bomber” which was the best sounding alliterative that mentioned his skin color. (Others being the Tan Tornado, Sepia Socker, and Dark Destroyer to name a few).  To avoid being put into another Jack Johnson situation, Louis was advised to “never have a picture taken with a white women, be humble at all times, never raise your hands over your white opponents or gloat,” because, he was warned, such behavior could start a riot,.  Furthermore, he was even told to avoid smiling in the ring against his opponents.[4]

Along his journey he was scheduled to face one more former champion before hopefully challenging for the title.  His opponent in the ring was Max Schmeling, a German boxer selected by the Nazis as the ideal of the so-called Aryan race. This was a fight where many expected Louis to quickly triumph. However, due to distractions outside of the ring, Joe Louis was, for the first time in his career on the losing end, all from a weakness that Schmeling noticed and capitalized on.  In the end, Schmeling delivered 72 right hands to the head among 12 rounds.[5]

Being devastated, Louis promised to never get in that position again. Through some political and backroom dealings, he was given the opportunity to fight for the championship against Champion James J. Braddock. This would be the first time since Jack Johnson that a black man would challenge for the title. Conditions were made before to appease Braddock’s camp, including having 10% of earnings that Louis would make per year given back to Braddock for a duration of 10 years. He entered the ring in 1937, in a huge roar of the crowd, Louis, became the 2nd ever black heavyweight champion of the world, knocking out Braddock in less than 8 rounds. Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with baseball in 1947, Joe Louis had done it in boxing 10 years earlier.

One name survived in Louis’s mind for two years.  All that time, a  cloud lingered over Louis, taking hold onto his mind. In 1938, Joe Louis was re-matching against the “Black Uhlan of the Rhine” Max Schmeling. At this time, tensions in Europe were high because of the German Anschluß, or invasion/annexation of Austria, the persecution of European Jews that would ultimately become the Holocaust, and other developments that portended the outbreak of war the following year.  Schmeling was the chosen face of Nazi Germany, selected to be a bulwark against Joe Louis, put in the role as an emblem of American democracy. For this fight, a huge majority of America, not just black America, accepted Joe Louis as their hopeful hero. The fight caught the attention of the world, with an estimated 80,000 in attendance, and 200 million listening on the radio, or later watching on film.[6] By the day of the fight, June 22nd, the feeling was electric as those interested waited in eager anticipation, with the symbolism and potential impact adding to the importance of the affair for both sports and politics.  In a first round knockout, just 124 seconds into the fight, Louis defeated the man who had beat him two years prior.  Some at the time wondered if Louis had toppled this “great Aryan hope”, could Hitler and his regime not be overcome?

After what is seen by many boxing historians as the biggest event in sports history, Joe Louis continued to defend the title for his record 12 year streak, a streak that would be known as Joe Louis’s “Bum of the Month Club.” Meanwhile, Schmeling became a paratrooper in the Wehrmacht.[7] December 7th, 1941 the attack on Pearl Harbor had Joe Louis trying to find any way he could to help with the war effort, including donating two $100,000 fight prizes to military relief funds, the equivalent of over $1.5 million in 2017.  Afterwards in 1942, Louis enlisted in the United States Army as apart of their entertainment division where he would sacrifice four years of his prime to serve in a cause that was greater than himself.

During World War II, Joe Louis was assigned to positions aimed at raising the morale of soldier and civilians and therefore never went overseas for combat. Instead he would hold exhibitions against other soldiers. Even though the military was still segregated, Joe Louis called for desegregation so that military members of all races can see him spar. (Even after boxing Joe Louis was the one who caused the Professional Golf Association to integrate black players for golf, he was the first black player to participate) At the point he would frequently call Truman Gibson, an official the War Department for Civilian Aid, and request improvement in the conditions for soldiers.  If there were any racially troubling situations in the military, Joe Louis would spearhead to get them fixed. In turn he would travel across the United States to raise even more money for the war effort, giving his famous quote of, “we’re going to do our part… and we’ll win because we’re on God’s side.”

Even though he served his country for his full term, he was soon to be hounded by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for back taxes, owing roughly $800,000 by the end of his career. After fighting Jersey Joe Walcott the second time, he earned his retirement and vacated the championship.  However, due to money troubles, he was coerced to fight again for a fraction of what he was making while champion. On top of that, his income was taxed at 90%. As a result, Louis did whetever it took to make a quick buck, including appearing on game shows, selling cigarettes, marketing his own soda, owning a restaurant, and later to many peoples’ dismay, professional wrestling. For his last fight, at the well past his prime age of 37, Joe Louis stepped the ring against the unbeaten rising contender Rocky Marciano for his last big payday. The aged former champion was knocked out in round 8 in a brutal fashion.

In the end, Joe Louis did finally retire in 1951 after a 17 year career, 12 of them spent as champion. After a great career, Louis was still hounded by the IRS, until the mid 1970s, where his 3rd wife worked a deal with IRS to only tax him of future earnings and give him a fresh new start. Sadly his mindset of a former beloved champion soon drifted away due to the brash nature of up-and-coming champions like Muhammad Ali with his loud and boastful style compared to the quiet professionalism of Joe Louis. He later worked as a greeter for Caesars’ Palace in Las Vegas until his death in 1981.

To truly show how much of a turn of events his life was, during retirement, Joe Louis would meet again with his rival Max Schmeling, not as combatants, but as friends. Max at the time was one of the major distributors of Coca-Cola in Germany and made himself millions even though he was tied to the Nazi Party.  By comparison, Joe Louis, with his service to his country and the amount of good he did for race and sports and the world, had nothing but his name. Even then as their friendship grew, Louis was still in the same spot, even though Schmeling helped him every now and then along the way. Even in death, Max Schmeling payed for the entirety of Joe Louis’s funeral service.

In the end, much like Detroit, its’ adoptive son in Joe Louis went through political and economic recession, taken many impacts from the nation and the world, but in the end still had its’ name and reputation of the past glory years. As stated by many boxing historians such as the great Bert Sugar and Harry Mullan, it is Joe Louis’s legacy of what he did in his life that makes him one of the most important boxers in the long history of the sport. In the time of Louis, there was no one like him in his field, and there was no one like him outside his field. Joe Louis is a legend in and out of the ring, and without him, the world itself might be a drastically different place.  American needed a hero to believe in during that time. Leave it to that formerly poor, uneducated black man from Detroit to become the darling of America and that hero that the world needed.   This was the shadow that was cast by the light given of by the man, Joe Louis, Motown’s Champion and America’s Idol.


[1] Police Gazette, Interview with John L. Sullivan, 1892)

[2] Los Angeles Times, “A Word to the Black Man” (July 5th 1910)

[3] Joe Louis: America’s Hero Betrayed, Home Box Office, 2008

[4] Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America, Chris Mead, 1985

[5] Compu-Box Louis vs Schmeling I, 1936

[6] Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, David Margolick, 2005

[7] Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, David Margolick, 2005