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Harry Wills and the Image of the Black Boxer from Jack Johnson to Joe Louis


The African-American press created images of Harry Wills that were intended to restore the image of the black boxer after Jack Johnson and to use these positive representations as effective tools in the fight against inequality. Newspapers highlighted Wills’s moral character in contrast to Johnson’s questionable reputation. Articles, editorials, and cartoons presented Wills as a representative of all Americans regardless of race and appealed to notions of sportsmanship based on equal opportunity in support of the fighter’s efforts to gain a chance at the title. The representations also characterized Wills as a race man whose struggle against boxing’s color line was connected to the larger challenges facing all African Americans. The linking of a sports figure to the broader cause of civil rights would only intensify during the 1930s as figures such as Joe Louis became even more effective weapons in the fight against Jim Crow segregation.