- Joe Louis: Sports and Race in Twentieth-Century America by Marcy Sacks
American sports icons are often enveloped in myths and manufactured images. Modern sportswriters and historians have scrutinized many such legends and have substantially reconfigured public perceptions of past athletic heroes. Marcy Sacks’s Joe Louis: Sports and Race in Twentieth-Century America delivers knockout blows to a couple of long-held fictions about the great African American heavyweight boxing champion of the 1930s and 1940s. She persuasively contends that the white newsmen and publicists of that time mischaracterized Louis in a way intended to make him more acceptable to white Americans. Sacks also convincingly refutes the oft-made claim that Louis’s presumed popularity among whites demonstrated that America had largely forsaken its racist past.
From the time he first emerged as a promising contender in the boxing haunts of Detroit, Louis projected an image of being a quiet, humble “boy” of limited intellect. His respectful, unassuming demeanor reassured whites, who felt that Louis, even if he became heavyweight champion (as he did in 1937), would pose no challenge to the country’s racist-laden social customs and hierarchy. This was in contrast to the lone previous black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who had openly flouted the even-stricter racist norms of the early twentieth century and who committed the supreme outrage of marrying a white woman.
Black Americans looked upon Louis in a fundamentally different way than whites did. Blacks admired, loved, and, in some cases, all but worshipped Louis because he had broken [End Page 130] free of the subordinate status imposed on African Americans and because he forced whites to recognize, however grudgingly, his supremacy in the sport of boxing.
Which perception of Louis was accurate? Both were, Sacks contends. On the one hand, Louis did not publicly complain about or confront American society’s deeply ingrained racism. In that respect, he conformed to white people’s expectations of him. Yet despite his outward docility, Louis did not altogether acquiesce to the mistreatments inflicted on fellow members of his race. Using the power of his celebrity and friendships with whites in high places, Louis often took behind-the-scenes steps to halt or at least ameliorate the injustices he observed. He secured ringside seating for African American reporters, he insisted that black soldiers sit with their white counterparts to watch his exhibition fights, and, in retirement, he challenged the deeply embedded racist customs of golf, a sport Louis greatly enjoyed.
Many whites derived smug satisfaction from believing that their positive regard for Louis proved that America had transcended its racist past. Sacks, however, effectively debunks the notion that Louis served as a unifying force who improved race relations nationally. First, white reporters routinely characterized Louis in demeaning, stereotypical ways, complete with insulting nicknames, of which the most famous, the “Brown Bomber,” was among the least offensive. Beyond that, popular memory to the contrary, many white Americans openly rooted for Louis to lose, both during his ascent to the heavyweight title and in his defense of his crown. The one exception occurred in 1938, when Louis retained his title by soundly defeating Max Schmeling, the only fighter who previously had beaten him. Schmeling was a hero in Nazi Germany; with war on the horizon, his rematch with Louis took on stark symbolic significance as a clash between American democracy and fascist ideology. For once, patriotic fervor largely subsumed racist feelings, even if many whites who rooted for Louis remained blind to the cruel irony of their hypocrisy.
After reigning as heavyweight champion for almost twelve years, Louis retired in 1949. Unfortunately, he had fallen into serious tax arrears, and, desperate for cash, he re-entered the ring even though his diminished skills made it impossible to recapture past glory. Many whites interpreted this sad spectacle as confirmation of various racist stereotypes. In hindsight, it seems fair to conclude that Louis’s spendthrift ways while he was earning big paydays contributed to his later money...