When Joe Louis fought Schmeling, white America enthusiastically rooted for a black man
80 years ago, a heavyweight fight morphed into Roosevelt vs. Hitler, Democracy vs. Fascism and Good vs. Evil
Eighty years ago, on the night of June 22, 1938, Joe Louis walked across the infield grass at Yankee Stadium, a hooded robe draped over his broad shoulders, the weight of his country on his back.
This would be the Brown Bomber’s fourth title defense, and indisputably the most meaningful. A lot had changed since his opponent, Max Schmeling, had dealt him his only defeat two years earlier. Americans now cared as much about the fate of the world as hooks and crosses. Adolf Hitler’s army was starting to march through Europe, and the Nazis were herding Jews into concentration camps. What mattered most to the 80,000 fight fans packed into Yankee Stadium was Schmeling’s nationality — he was German, and Hitler was hailing him as proof of Aryan racial superiority.
It wasn’t a huge leap to see Louis-Schmeling II as a prelude to war: If Louis beat Schmeling, then America could certainly knock out the Führer himself. This, of course, was far more than the 24-year-old Louis had signed on for. The fight, with all of its political implications, had morphed into Roosevelt vs. Hitler, Democracy vs. Fascism and Good vs. Evil.
And, for a brief moment, it turned the table on race relations in America.
Nearly 100 million listeners around the world tuned in to the fight on radio. In Germany, where it was the middle of the night, 20 million people waited eagerly for Schmeling to prove Aryan dominance over the black man. In the Yorkville section of Manhattan, a predominantly German-American neighborhood, all eyes were also on Schmeling. But virtually everybody else in America was pulling for Louis. American Jews prayed for Louis to strike a blow against anti-Semitism. African-Americans saw a chance to undermine white supremacy. And white Americans, many of whom had never wanted Louis or any black man to hold the heavyweight title, were suddenly determined to see the Brown Bomber crush the Nazi.
As boxing historian Thomas Hauser wrote in The Guardian, “[This] was the first time that many white Americans openly rooted for a black man against a white opponent. It was also the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as ‘the American.’ ”
Ralph Matthews, writing in the Baltimore Afro-American, put it this way: “Joe had the advantage, first, of being an American, and although he was a member of a minority American group, despised to a certain extent, yet when pitted against an out-and-out foreigner, he was still on the credit side of the emotional ledger. … The majority would rather see the championship remain in America, even through the efforts of a black boy, than see it carted across the ocean.”
The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on Louis. “White Americans,” he told reporters before the fight, “even while some of them were lynching black people in the South, were depending on me to K.O. a German … the whole damned country was depending on me.”
But just because whites were rooting for Louis didn’t mean they saw him as an equal. The mainstream media largely portrayed black fighters as some form of inferior species. Yes, some reporters presented Louis as what he was: a technically brilliant fighter who’d fought his way up the ranks by running six hours a day, sparring five days a week and outwitting every top contender. But countless others dismissed him as a primitive savage or a lazy Southern “darkie.” To them, he didn’t beat white boxers with his mastery of the sweet science but rather out of instinct — unleashing the primitive traits embedded in his African DNA.
Bill Corum, a syndicated columnist for the New York Evening Journal, described the young fighter a year before the Schmeling rematch: “Joe Louis is one person with whom thinking, or trying to think, is a definite weakness. Attempting to indulge himself in that luxury would ruin him quicker than all the dissipation on earth. … He’s a big, superbly built Negro youth, who was born to listen to jazz music, eat a lot of fried chicken, play ball with the gang on the corner and never do a lick of heavy work he could escape. The chances are he came by all those inclinations quite naturally.”
Grantland Rice, the widely read columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, was more concise. “The great Negro boxer is rarely a matter of manufacture, like many white boxers. He is born that way.”
Louis was familiar with American racism, of course. He’d been raised in Jim Crow Alabama, and when he moved to Detroit and worked the conveyor belt at Ford’s River Rouge plant, he swapped a sharecropper’s shack for a tenement in the ghetto. Just as in the South, there was no place in Northern white communities for black teachers, black doctors or black lawyers.
In boxing, too, those with dark skin were often shut out. This was especially true in the heavyweight division, the weight class that brought the most fame, attention and money. Many whites still hadn’t gotten over the first black champion, Jack Johnson. The “Galveston Giant” won the heavyweight title in 1908 and spent his seven-year reign breaking nearly every racial taboo of the era. He flashed his wealth, taunted white opponents and, in a time when just talking to a white woman could get a black man lynched, openly dated (and married) white women. It was Johnson who prompted white America to dig up the first Great White Hope. In this case, it was previous champion Jim Jeffries, who was decidedly white but far from great. Johnson battered him for 14 rounds and put him away in the 15th of a scheduled 45.
Louis’ route to becoming heavyweight champion had been to prove he was everything Johnson wasn’t — docile, polite and unthreatening to whites. His managers, Julian Black and John Roxborough, established a code of conduct for their young fighter: Never gloat over a fallen opponent, always appear humble and, for God’s sake, never be seen alone with a white woman. In short, they trained Louis to become a white man’s ideal black man.
Years later, when Louis was a debt-saddled, cocaine-addicted shell of his former self, Muhammad Ali referred to the ex-champ as an Uncle Tom, never mentioning that Louis had lived in a different era. Louis’ was a time of brutal segregation, when blacks were not permitted to share public facilities with whites — let alone play pro baseball, football or basketball with them. It was Louis who convinced whites it was OK to root for a black man. Without Joe Louis, there may have never been a Muhammad Ali.
Louis’ status in the black community — half role model, half savior — took root as he knocked out one opponent after another. As he marched toward the title, winning 31 of his first 32 fights, he commanded bigger headlines, especially in black-owned newspapers. On any given day, readers of the New York Amsterdam News, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Atlanta Daily World, or the Chicago Defender could open the paper to a photo of Louis dining at a restaurant, Louis relaxing at training camp, Louis reading the Bible. And the stories grew from there. In one, most probably apocryphal, a black inmate was about to be executed in North Carolina. Legend has it that as the poison gas was filling the man’s lungs, he cried out, “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis.”
Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was a young girl in rural Arkansas when Louis was making his ascent. In her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she tells the story of listening to the fight between Louis and the Italian Primo Carnera at Yankee Stadium in 1935. She and her older brother, Bailey, sat by the radio in their grandmother’s grocery, the only black-owned store in town. The place was crammed with neighbors who’d come to hear Louis knock out Benito Mussolini’s boy.
They surely enjoyed the early rounds as the 6-foot-2 Louis outboxed the 6-foot-6 Carnera. But when Carnera’s missiles began zeroing in on their target, Angelou and her companions felt those blows land in the pit of their own stomachs.
“My race groaned,” Angelou wrote. “[This] was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. … If Joe lost, we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true: the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than apes. … We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited.”
Louis sprang back to life and knocked out Carnera in the sixth round. Still, he didn’t get a title shot until two years later, and even then, his promoter, Mike Jacobs, had been forced to make a deal like no other. The agreement boiled down to this: To get Louis in the ring with then-champion James Braddock, Jacobs had to give Braddock 10 percent of Louis’ purses for the next 10 years. Louis wound up knocking out the champion in the eighth round and spent the following decade paying Braddock for the privilege of stepping onto the canvas with him.
As Louis-Schmeling II approached, it quickly established itself as one of the most anticipated sporting events of the 20th century. Schmeling was portrayed as the most one-dimensional of enemies: a Nazi. In truth, he seemed to be more of an opportunist, willing to say whatever was necessary to advance his career. To Hitler, he presented himself as a willing poster boy for Aryan supremacy; to boxing promoters in New York, he repeatedly stated he wasn’t a member of the Nazi Party. But the fight was more than a political showdown. Louis had been defeated only once before — by Schmeling. That meeting had been a one-sided affair in which the German, then a 30-year-old ex-champion with a 49-7-4 record, had pounded Louis with so many overhand rights that Louis ended the match on the canvas, staring up at the Bronx sky over Yankee Stadium. This time around, Louis was out to even the score.
Swarms of journalists invaded Louis’ training camp, looking for updates on his schedule, his workouts — anything they could turn into newspaper copy. Celebrities also came by to meet the champ. Duke Ellington showed up. So did Jesse Owens, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. They all told Louis the same thing: “You gotta beat this guy.”
As for Schmeling, he assured his fans that he’d be swinging the same explosive right hand that had floored Louis in their first fight in 1936, and he told the Pittsburgh Courier that Louis still wouldn’t know how to handle it. “Joe is what you call a physical fighter, not a brain fighter who quickly adapts himself to the ever-changing situations of a fight,” he said. “In our last encounter, his seconds must have told him a hundred times to keep away from my right, which was obviously winning the fight and throwing him off balance. With these historical facts in mind, how do people figure that he will be any different [now]?”
By the time Louis climbed into the 20-foot-square ring at the top of the Yankee Stadium baseball diamond, it seemed nearly everybody on the planet was tuned in to the radio broadcast.
In Harlem, busy streets slowed to a trickle, and then desolation, as residents huddled inside apartments, bars and clubs.
In Plains, Georgia, future president Jimmy Carter was 14 years old and itching to hear the fight. The Carters had no electricity, so Jimmy’s father, Earl, rigged a radio to his car battery. A few dozen field hands came by to listen, so Earl placed the contraption by a window and they fanned out under a mulberry tree.
When ring announcer Harry Balogh stepped to the center of the canvas and introduced the fighters, Americans of all colors leaned forward, waiting anxiously for NBC announcer Clem McCarthy to call the action.
Yankee Stadium was, uncharacteristically, in full darkness — except for the arc of lights beaming down on the ring. And there was Louis, a hero to the black community, a symbol of democracy, the only Black Great White Hope in history.
By now, Louis was a far more seasoned fighter than he’d been in the first Schmeling match. He’d since fought 12 fights — winning them all, 11 by knockout — and had spent months training to avoid Schmeling’s right.
When the bell rang, Louis wasted no time. He came out firing lefts, rights, uppercuts and combinations. “I knew my whole career depended [on that one fight],” he later said. “It was going to be all or nothing.” The champ’s punches were hard and vicious, and delivered with precision and speed. Schmeling fell to his knees, and when he got up, Louis knocked him down again.
The record books show it took two minutes and four seconds. That’s when Schmeling’s trainer Max Machon rushed into the ring to save his fighter — and when referee Arthur Donovan raised Louis’ arms in victory.
According to David Margolick’s book Beyond Glory: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink, the stadium crowd erupted in euphoria. Whites hugged blacks. Jews hurled racial epithets at Schmeling. American actress Tallulah Bankhead, sitting ringside, shouted at the Schmeling fans behind her: “I told you so, you sons of b—-es!”
In Germany, disheartened listeners hung on radio announcer Arno Helmis’ words. “I will still say to the blonde little wife in Berlin that Maxie [is] standing up. His eye is not cut open and his face is not ruined …” The line went dead, presumably because the Third Reich didn’t want to dwell on the fact that a black man had just toppled their Aryan hero.
But there was no denying history.
As Heywood Broun wrote the following day in the New York World-Telegram, “One hundred years from now some historian may theorize, in a footnote at least, that the decline of Nazi prestige began with a left hook delivered by a former unskilled automotive worker who had never studied the policies of Neville Chamberlain and had no opinion whatsoever in regard to the situation in Czechoslovakia.”
In black communities across the country, residents celebrated as never before. In Harlem, makeshift bands sprung up on stoops and under street lamps. Author Richard Wright described the scene as “a hundred thousand black people [surging] out of taprooms, flats, restaurants, [filling] the streets and sidewalks like the Mississippi River overflowing in flood time. With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed to come from untold reserves of strength.”
In the South, celebrations necessarily took a different form. In Louis’ birthplace of LaFayette, Alabama, a group of black residents had gathered at a local restaurant to listen to the fight. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, “When the fight ended, quickly and abruptly, they shook hands, hugged each other, filed out and scattered to their homes, an occasional whoop marking their progress through the darkened streets.”
Similarly, Jimmy Carter’s black neighbors kept their exuberance in check. “The customs of the South prevailed,” Carter said years later. “There was not a sound out of the black listeners. Nothing. Just absolute quiet after Louis won. And then they walked across the railroad tracks, a couple hundred yards away, and all hell broke loose. They celebrated all night long to early [morning], almost daylight, just showing they were proud of Joe Louis.”
The country was still divided. And Hitler, of course, continued his maniacal march toward world power. But there’s no denying this: On the night of June 22, 1938, when the lights at Yankee Stadium went dark, when the world’s radios turned silent, when Harlem’s joyous cheers faded to a distant echo, Joe Louis was no longer “the black champion.”
He was America’s champion.