On a summer night 80 Junes ago, black Americans drew close to their radios. They listened with great expectations and pounding hearts. No matter where they lived or how, the airwaves had transported them, body and soul, to a boxing ring in New York’s Yankee Stadium.
It was just the first round. The 70,000 spectators were still settling into their seats. Two men were fighting, one black and the other white; one from America and the other from Germany. In the future, the men would become friendly and their countries would become allies, but not tonight. Tonight a championship boxing match served as a herald and a proxy for World War II.
Black America’s gladiator rocked his opponent with brutal blows that caused him to shriek with pain. Then Clem McCarthy, the gravelly-voiced radio announcer, repeated the magic words that appeared final this time: “And Schmeling is down.” Spirits soared. Across the country, black people spilled out into the streets, beating pots and pans, tambourines to glory and joy.
Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” had won.
Just 24 and the heavyweight champion of the world, Louis had beaten Max Schmeling, a 33-year-old German and a former heavyweight champion. Despite being billed by the Nazi propaganda machine as an avatar of Aryan superiority, the German had demurred, “I am no superman in any way.” Still, Schmeling, the first European to hold the world heavyweight title, had entered the bout as the only man to defeat Louis during his professional career: a stunning upset on June 22, 1938.
Before the fight, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had felt Louis’ muscles and said that the son of Alabama sharecroppers possessed the kind of strength the nation would need to defeat Germany. At the time, World War II had not been declared, but Germany had displayed its rapaciousness and evil, including the increasing persecution of its Jewish people.
Consequently, Louis entered the ring with more than the black hopes and aspirations tied up in his boxing gloves.
“The whole damn country was depending on me,” Louis would later say.
And most of the country joined black America in cheering Louis, a former Michigan automobile assembly line worker whose pistonlike left jab dismantled his opponents.
“That’s when Joe Louis … transcended to become a true American hero,” his son Joseph Louis Barrow Jr. would later tell ESPN. “All of America, not just black America, was rooting for him in a way they had never done so before. Because it was sending a signal to the ever-growing powerful Germany that at the end of the day they did not have the master race.”
White America’s embrace of Louis, who grew up in Detroit, was starkly different from the open hostility that had stalked Jack Johnson after he became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908. Indeed, what W.E.B. DuBois called Johnson’s “unforgivable blackness” enmeshed the boxer in turmoil that plagued him throughout his life, which ended in 1946, the year Donald Trump was born.
Last month, Trump pardoned Johnson for the crime of transporting a white woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.”
During his boxing career, Louis was as publicly humble as Johnson had been brash. And, unlike Johnson, Louis was able to keep his affairs with white women out of the public eye. Consequently, Louis established a template for the black male athlete who seeks to successfully operate within the boundaries white America sets. He died in 1981. Max Schmeling would die 24 years later.
From 1937 to 1949, Louis was the heavyweight champion of the world. To some, he was the “Brown Bomber.” To others, he was the “Dark Destroyer.” For others, still, he was the “Sepia Slugger.”
But on June, 22, 1938, Joe Louis (Barrow) transcended the boundaries of racial definitions and descriptions. He beat Scheming and left the supposed embodiment of Aryan superiority crumpled and crying in the ring. Like his defeated opponent, Louis was no superman. But he was a champion for all America, helping everyone to understand the nation’s heroes could come from any race.
That was a victory that resounds at this very moment.