Today would be the 107th birthday of a boxing legend and Army Veteran: Joe Louis. Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, was a heavyweight boxer with one of the winningest records in history. He won the heavyweight title and defended it for nearly 17 years. He was also an outspoken patriot and US Army volunteer during World War II. In a time when real systemic racism had segregated Black Americans, Joe Louis’ pride shone out. He used his celebrity to help others, and became a national hero with the Army’s Special Services Division. In his later years, he would continue breaking racial barriers in sports by participating in the PGA.
Joseph Louis Barrow was born in 1914 in rural Alabama to a life of utter poverty. His parents struggled in life, rotating between sharecropping and rental farming. But when Joe was just two years old, his father was institutionalized. Joe’s father, believed to have died in the hospital soon after admittance, actually lived there until his death in 1938, fully unaware of his son’s accomplishments.
Joe Louis Starts Boxing
In 1926, Joe’s mother moved the family to Detroit, citing fear for their lives after a KKK rally. As a young man, Joe found an interest in boxing at the Brewster Recreation Center. He started working in cabinetry then found a place on an assembly line. But all the while, he was spending evenings in the ring as an amateur boxer.
In 1934, at the age of 20, as he became a local celebrity, he quit the day job and became a professional fighter. In that year alone, he won three amateur boxing gold medals in Chicago and St Louis. During his three years as an amateur boxer, his record was 50-4, with 43 knockouts.
During Joe Louis’ early career especially, black fighters were rarely championship contenders. They were often forced into low level fights because of racial sentiments. Jack Johnson, one of the first black heavyweight champions in that era, made many enemies because of his success and for marrying a white woman. But boxing promoter Mike Jacobs, and Joe Louis’ handlers helped create an inscrutable public image by following a set of rules called the Seven Commandments of Joe Louis:
- He was never to have his picture taken with a white woman.
- He was never to go to a nightclub alone.
- There would be no soft fights.
- There would be no fixed fights.
- He was never to gloat over a fallen opponent
- He was to keep a “dead pan” in front of the cameras.
- He was to live and fight clean.
While Hitler and Mussolini had brought fascism to Europe, Louis gained international notoriety when he defeated Italy’s heavyweight champion, Primo Carnera in 1936. But that same year he lost to Germany’s champion boxer, “superman” Max Schmeling, his first professional loss. Despite the loss, he went on to fight Jim Braddock and won the heavyweight championship belt. Max Schmeling was then touted in Germany as evidence of Aryan superiority, and used for propaganda.
Despite his heavyweight title, Joe Louis regularly told the press that he would not consider himself a champion until he defeated Schmeling and redeemed his only loss. And in 1938, he did just that: Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in just 2:44. This victory made Joe Louis a sports legend and celebrity of American patriotism over the fear of Nazism.
Joe Louis Joins the Army
After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, Americans raced to recruitment offices. Joe Louis used his celebrity to support the troops. On January 9, 1942, he fought Buddy Baer in a charity fight for the Navy Relief Society, raising $47,000 for the organization (roughly $770,000 today). On January 10, he walked into the recruitment office and joined the Army.
Joe Louis wanted to do his part in the war. After boot camp, he was sent to Fort Riley, home of the famous Buffalo Soldiers, to train as a cavalryman. His son recalled that he would have gladly hung up his gloves and picked up a rifle. But the Army wanted to use his celebrity prowess for the Special Services Division.
Throughout the war, Joe Louis traveled with other boxers and celebrities to military stations in the US, Pacific, and even Europe. He fought 96 exhibition fights, shook hands with soldiers, and helped sell war bonds. In 1942 alone, he donated two championship fight purses, nearly $100,000 to the Army and Navy Relief Societies.
Joe Louis was critical to the Army effort in recruiting Black Americans, even though the military was still segregated. In 1942, a young Black UCLA graduate stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, applied for officer candidacy. The Army claimed OCS was race-neutral, but Black candidates were not making it to the school. Joe stepped in and used his celebrity status to cut the red tape. The future baseball legend, Jackie Robinson had Joe Louis to thank for helping him receive his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant.
During a trip through Alabama in 1943, traveling to his next military exhibition with fellow boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson, he was ordered to the back of a bus by a Military Policeman. Joe Louis nearly got into an unscheduled bout with the man when he refused to move. He won the standoff and stayed in his seat.
Joe Louis had been so determined to do his part entertaining the troops that he injured himself with the sheer volume of fights. But he wanted to serve his fellow troops who were putting their lives on the line for their country. For his devotion to service, he was awarded the Legion of Merit and separated from the Army as a Technical Sergeant at the end of the war in 1945.
Joe Louis defended his title until his retirement in March, 1949. His professional record was 66-3, with 52 knockouts. Financial troubles brought him back to the ring in the 1950’s, where he eventually fought the champion, Rocky Marciano. He also became the first Black golfer to play in the PGA. In 1954, he was admitted to the Boxing Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1956.
His later years became a struggle with drugs and mental health problems, likely exacerbated by the head traumas of a professional boxer. In 1969, he publicly collapsed in New York City due to his drug problems. In 1970 he was temporarily institutionalized in Denver, Colorado for paranoia. He died in 1981 in Las Vegas, Nevada, of cardiac arrest. President Ronald Reagan authorized him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His funeral was paid for by Max Schmeling, who had become a friend in their later years. Max Schmeling was one of his pallbearers.
Featured photo: Joe Louis holds his boxing gloves while on tour with the US Army
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