- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Joe Louis defended his heavyweight boxing title an astonishing twenty-five times and reigned as world champion for more than eleven years. He got more column inches of newspaper coverage in the 1930s than FDR did. His racially and politically charged defeat of Max Schmeling in 1938 made Louis a national hero. But as important as his record is what he meant to African-Americans: at a time when the boxing ring was the only venue where black and white could meet on equal terms, Louis embodied all their hopes for dignity and equality.
Through meticulous research and first-hand interviews, acclaimed historian and biographer Randy Roberts presents Louis, and his impact on sport and country, in a way never before accomplished. Roberts reveals an athlete who carefully managed his public image, and whose relationships with both the black and white communities—including his relationships with mobsters—were far more complex than the simplistic accounts of heroism and victimization that have dominated previous biographies.
Richly researched and utterly captivating, this extraordinary biography presents the full range of Joe Louis’s power in and out of the boxing ring.
"Roberts is a fine match with his subject. He supports with powerful evidence his contention that Louis''s impact was enormous and profound."—Bill Littlefield, Boston Globe
— Bill Littlefield
"Well-researched, intelligent, and insightful. . . . [Roberts is] able to capture the drama, brutality, and pathos of Louis''s epic battles."—Glenn Altschuler, Philadelphia Inquirer
— Glenn Altschuler
"[This] new biography by Randy Roberts restores Louis to his proper place in the pantheon, both as an athlete and as a cultural icon."—Allen St. John, Dallas Morning News
— Allen St. John
"A biography to be savored. . . . Roberts'' narrative of the pugilist and the man is gripping. . . . He captures the spirit of the age, when boxing on radio fed the national imagination. . . . Roberts recovers a great story and makes it sing for him."—Andrew Burstein, Baton Rouge Advocate
— Andrew Burstein
"It''s a thrilling account of an extraordinary life, one that needed to be retold to a generation tow hom Joe Louis is no more than an occasional face on ESPN Classic. There was a giant in those days, and Roberts has reclaimed him for us."—Allen Barra, St. Petersburg Times
— Allen Barra
"[An] exciting account of the great champ''s life. . . . [The book] isn''t so much a biography as a cultural history of its subject''s life and times. . . . It''s a thrilling account of an extraordinary life, one that needed to be retold to a generation to whom Joe Louis is no more than an occasional face on ESPN Classic. He was a giant in those days, and Randy Roberts has reclaimed him for us."—Allen Barra, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
— Allen Barra
"Louis''s story ghad been told by sportwriters and historians many times, but Roberts is a fine match with his subject. He suppports with powerful evidence his contention that Louis''s impact was enormous and profound. His explorations of the shameful social conditions and smug hyporcrisy poisoning the landscape over which Louis loomed for a time are incisive and convincing."—Bill Littlefield, New York Post
— Bill Littlefield
"Roberts has written a thoroughly researched, engaging book on African American heavyweight boxer Joe Louis. . . . This excellent book has much to say about race, nationalism, and identity."—A. Ejikeme, CHOICE
— A. Ejikeme
"Roberts''s book is a thoroughly researched beginner''s guide to boxing as well as an introductory course in 20th century politics that contains, at the heart of it, a stoic enigma of a fighter who wasn''t afraid to go toe-to-toe with the world."—Lance Hicks, Bama Escapes
— Lance Hicks
A sympathetic, moving life of the Brown Bomber by veteran cultural historian and biographer Roberts (History/Purdue Univ.; The Rock, the Curse, and the Hub: A Random History of Boston Sports, 2005, etc.).
As the author tells it, the story of Joseph Louis Barrow (1914–1981) is humbling, inspiring, depressing and deeply emotional. Born into a laboring family in rural Alabama, Louis, the seventh of eight children, showed no particular aptitude for much of anything. When his father's mental illness consumed him, Louis's mother remarried, and Joe eventually discovered the boxing world, where he began using Louis for a surname and discovered—after some shocks, disappointments and hard knocks—that he had the ability to be something special. And he was. As Roberts shows, America was a vilely racist society, both in the Jim Crow South and in the North. Louis, groomed by his handlers to be the laconic antithesis to the flamboyant Jack Johnson, still had the burden of an Atlas on his shoulders—the burden of the American black world, whose population grew to revere him and anoint him their avatar, their warrior who defeated, one after another, the representatives of oppressive white America. As war with Germany loomed, Louis came to represent America itself in his second fight (he'd lost the first) with the German Max Schmeling, who cavorted with Nazis and hung with Hitler. Roberts handles the boxing action with professional aplomb, and he knows when to cut away to tell us something of consequence and when to return to the ring. The author ably chronicles Louis's rise from Alabama cotton fields to the cavernous Yankee Stadium, where celebrities glittered in the ringside seats for his big fights; the development of the mass media (boxing was enormously popular on radio); Louis's career in the U.S. Army; and his sad decline, amid unpayable debts and mental illness.
All legendary athletes should hope for treatment by such capable, compassionate hands.
A Land Without Dreams
How in hell did you happen? —Chicago sociologist Robert E. Park to Richard Wright
If he lasts long enough, every fighter has the moment. Some experience it early—and it ends their careers. For others it comes later—and it ends their careers. And the rest? Well, they're the real fighters.
Accounts differ on when the moment happened in Joe Louis' career. Maybe it was his first amateur fight. More likely it was his second. It doesn't really matter. All that's important is that Louis was a raw-boned youth, unschooled in the craft of boxing and badly mismatched. It was spring 1932, a hard time to be black in America. Black unemployment rates in northern cities ran two to four times higher than the rates for white workers, and in the South hard times drove black tenant farmers and sharecroppers o their land. In Detroit, where Louis lived, unemployment for blacks hovered at 60 percent. Many critics believed that the federal government was powerless to solve the nation's economic troubles; others felt that no one in the Capitol cared what happened to black men.
Louis was one of several million out-of-work blacks. His stepfather, Pat Brooks, was unemployed, and so were his brothers. Although Brooks was dubious about Louis' decision to fight, he knew that even amateurs got merchandise checks for ten or twenty dollars that could be redeemed in food. That certainly carried some weight, and he gave his unenthusiastic consent. Fighting was not much of a career, but by then Louis had dropped out of school, spent too much time on the streets, and displayed no aptitude for anything else.
He was thrown into the ring against Johnny Miler, a tough light-heavyweight whose real name was John Miletich. Miler had potential. He was ambitious, scrappy, experienced, and four years older than Louis. Detroit fight people said that he was going places. Even before fighting Louis, Miler almost certainly engaged in a few professional bouts—the line between top amateurs and novice professionals was at best fuzzy, honored more in the breach than the observance. Shortly after fighting Louis he won the Detroit Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title and earned a place on the U.S. Olympic team. After the Olympics he fought professionally as a heavyweight, amassing a respectable record against some of the finest fighters of the mid-1930s. He sparred with Primo Carnera when the Italian was heavyweight champion of the world. He fought an exhibition against Max Baer after the California fighter had knocked out Carnera for the crown. In short, Louis entered the ring almost criminally mismatched.
Miler knew how to fight, Louis did not. But Joe had seen a photograph of the white boxer and was convinced he could beat him. He thought that it would be the beginning of a successful career. When the bell rang, Miler closed the distance, feinted, and lashed out with punches that Louis was not in a position to defend. Then he moved out of reach, making Louis' wild counters look foolish. Within seconds another exchange ended with Louis on the canvas. He struggled to his feet without a plan or a hope. His head felt numbed, his rhythm skipping beats. Miler knocked him down again and again and again. Seven times in the first two rounds. "Joe's face was all skinned up. He took a bad whipping," recalled his friend Walter Smith. "He was a bewildered young kid," Ring editor Nat Fleischer commented. "He really didn't know what he was doing—and after taking the first shot only dimly knew where he was." Smith said the locals used to kid Joe: "He was just like an elevator going up and down." But he kept getting to his feet, knowing with a dead certainty that there was more pain waiting for him.
Boxing is a brutal, unforgiving sport. People play baseball and basketball, football, tennis, and golf. No one plays boxing. Fighting is not a game. Getting hit in the face, having your eyes cut, swallowing your own blood, trying to move away from your opponent in a dull, mental fog—it is not like bogeying a hole in golf or striking out in baseball. It takes a certain aptitude, both physical and mental, to endure a painful one-sided fight. In his contest against Miler, Louis discovered no hidden recess of talent. He did not display any remarkable skills. But he did get up. He did finish the fight on his feet. He lost, but he did not quit. He showed, as Smith recalled, the "heart of a champion."
* * *
"I couldn't dream that big," said Joe Louis in 1948. He could not have imagined as a child in Alabama that one day he would earn millions of dollars, dress in custom-tailored clothes, and drive luxury automobiles. "I never dreamed such things when I was a kid. That never come across my mind. No, I don't dream back, hardly at all, on when I was a kid in Alabama. It seems like people expect you to dream that way, but I'm not cut out like that."
In January 1944, after ringing in the New Year with the soldiers at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, he took a publicity junket to his birthplace. The modest dwelling looked "like a good wind would have blown it down," he said. "No paint, loose boards, and it sagged all over." It slumped like an old man, surrounded by overgrown bushes and weeds. Just another sharecropper's shack in a red-clay, farmed-out, all-but-forgotten cotton field not too far from the Georgia state line. It was not a place that inspired dreams—not for a son of a mentally ill black sharecropper.
Joe Louis' life is peculiarly American. It was part of the bond that he would form with millions of other Americans. It was the American success story—up from poverty to the heights of a chosen profession, the leap from nothing to everything in the blink of an eye. From Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger to Jay Gatsby and Jack Dempsey to Johnny B. Goode and Elvis Presley—it is the original American creation myth. The context of lives, the historical forces that shaped them, can be explained, but not the individual, unique qualities. "This is the mystery of Democracy," President Woodrow Wilson said in a speech at the dedication of the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born, "that the richest fruits spring up out of soils which no man has prepared and in circumstances where they are least expected."
Joe Louis Barrow was born in that sharecropper's shack on May 13, 1914, while his father and older siblings worked outside in a cotton field. In every conceivable physical and metaphorical sense, he was literally born at the dead end of a dirt road. In Joe's case, the road was a dusty stretch a little less than three miles southeast of LaFayette, Alabama, a tiny artery o of Chambers County Road 1083. The dirt road, County Road 488, meanders east toward the Buckelew Mountains, through a hilly terrain.
There was nothing exceptional about his birth, no predictions of fame and fortune, no thoughts beyond just another mouth to feed. He was the seventh of eight children born to Munroe "Mun" Barrow and Lillie Reese Barrow. Mun, by most accounts, was a big man, 6 foot 3 inches and 200 or so pounds, who could work from sunup to sundown and then into the night. But he was mentally unstable, and by 1914 he had begun to drift away, sometimes moody, occasionally angry, but more often just eerily quiet and withdrawn. Before long he would disappear from the Barrows' family life, committed to the Searcy Hospital for the Colored Criminally Insane in Mount Vernon, Alabama. After Mun was gone, Lillie became close to Pat Brooks, a widower with a number of children of his own—accounts vary between six and nine. They soon married, and Pat became the only father Joe ever knew.
After Joe Louis became famous, there were people who knew him in Alabama who said that they sensed something special about him. Arthur Shealey, his cousin, said that as a youth when Joe helped pick cotton he would fill the first bag, tie it to the branch of a tree, and then every time he reached the end of a row, he would drop his bag and punch away at the hanging sack. Lillie, Shealey said, had to take a switch to Joe to get him back to work. In the 1930s and 1940s, other locals told somewhat less vivid stories that emphasized the size of Joe's hands or his unnatural strength. He was a good lad, his aunt Cora Barrow told a reporter, "but he was de very devil when he got mad; and he'd try to beat the tar out-a anybody what crossed him, then."
Probably none of the stories were true. The hard fact was that Joe was an easy child not to remember. In the brood of children, Joe stood out the least. To begin with, he was a slow developer. He was late to walk and talk, and when he did talk, he badly mispronounced words and stuttered. His language problems made him self-conscious, so he kept his mouth shut as much as possible. He was a loner. He seldom went to what passed for a school and instead rambled through the backcountry catching snakes and fishing. He worked when he was told, went to the Baptist church on Sundays, and played mostly with the other children in his family. He rarely got into fights, showed no real signs of aggressiveness, and was best known for his quiet, good nature.
* * *
Louis' Alabama childhood took place in the Indian summer of southern white supremacy, not many years before the entire edifice began to crack around the foundation and slowly crumble. It was a time when cotton was still king in the South, when it was planted to the front door and virtually every fertile field turned white at harvest time. Cotton boomed during World War I. To keep the product out of German hands, England bought large amounts of American cotton at artificially inflated prices. Reacting to the sudden boon, farmers scrambled to buy more land to plant more cotton. Times were good—for a while. But the high prices encouraged other nations to get into the cotton business, cutting into the American market share, and the end of the war pricked the price bubble. In the spring of 1920 a pound of cotton sold for $0.42 on the New Orleans market; by the fall it had plummeted to $0.20 and by year's end had slid to $0.13. And it continued to fall in the early 1920s. Cotton farmers were left with mortgages on land they had bought at inflated prices and little income to meet their debts.
Adding to their woes, the boll weevil arrived in Alabama the year Louis was born. In some years the hungry weevils destroyed as much as 75 percent of the cotton crop, driving farmers o their land and forcing millions of tenant farmers and sharecroppers to migrate out of the South. Altogether, the boom and the bust, the war and the weevil, created an atmosphere of anxiety and fear. In Atlanta and Montgomery people talked about the New South, about diversification of the economy and better times ahead, but outside the cites, in the festering cotton fields and the decaying small towns, southerners knew better. A way of life was dying—and, as in the past, someone had to pay the price.
In the South that meant blacks. Race was the soul of southern culture, and the Jim Crow laws that institutionalized the separation of blacks and whites were the constant, daily, humiliating reminders of the white belief that blacks were inferior. Jim Crow ruled virtually every area of life. As late as 1898 an editorial in the Charleston News and Courier, the oldest newspaper in the South, attempted a reductio ad absurdum argument against the establishment of Jim Crow cars on trains.
If there must be Jim Crow cars on the railroads, there should be Jim Crow cars on the street railways. Also on all passenger boats.... If there are to be Jim Crow cars, moreover, there should be Jim Crow waiting saloons at all stations, and Jim Crow eating houses.... There should be Jim Crow sections of the jury box, and a separate Jim Crow dock and witness stand in every court—and a Jim Crow Bible for colored witnesses to kiss. It would be advisable also to have a Jim Crow section in county auditors' and treasurers' offices for the accommodations of colored taxpayers. The two races are dreadfully mixed in these offices for weeks every year, especially about Christmas.... There should be a Jim Crow department for making returns and paying for the privileges and blessings of citizenship. Perhaps, the best plan would be, after all, to take the short cut to the general end ... by establishing two or three Jim Crow counties at once, and turning them over to our colored citizens for their special and exclusive accommodation.
The absurdity of this exposition, of course, was lost in the coming decade as white southerners raced to segregate the races in every walk of life. The distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward noted, "Apart from the Jim Crow counties and Jim Crow witness stand, all the improbable applications of the principle suggested by the editor in derision had been put into practice—down to and including the Jim Crow Bible."
And so it went in the region where Louis was born. Signs reading "White" and "Colored" salt-and-peppered the landscape. For travelers, Jim Crow laws separated the races on railroad cars, railway station waiting rooms, streetcars, and steamboats. Jim Crow laws separated the races when they ate in restaurants, slept in hotels, drank at water fountains, and relieved themselves in public washrooms. There were Jim Crow sections in movie houses and theaters, Jim Crow entrances and exits, Jim Crow stairways and windows, Jim Crow hospitals and prisons, Jim Crow orphanages and mental facilities, and Jim Crow parks and circuses. It almost goes without saying that there were Jim Crow schools. Southern whites went to the respectably funded schools, southern blacks to the miserably funded ones. Black and white students did not mix. Nor did their textbooks mix during the long hot southern summers, when school authorities stored the textbooks used by the different races in separate closets. Even in such matters literary, the idea of miscegenation was repellant to southern whites.
Unwritten codes filled in the spaces not covered by the law. Although blacks and whites worked alongside one another, passed one another on the streets, and daily exchanged greetings, they all knew the rules. Blacks, regardless of their age, addressed whites, regardless of their age, as "mister" or "miss." Whites, regardless of age, addressed blacks, regardless of their age, by their first names, except when they called a male of any age "boy." Blacks who entered a home of a white person always used the back door. In fact, unless a black was entering the home as a domestic, whatever business needed tending was best tended on the back porch, or, in cases of particularly nasty weather, in the kitchen. If a black stepped into the living room or dining room of a white person's home, she had better have a cleaning rag in her hands or he had better be wearing butler's garb.
The street also had its codes. Blacks gave way to whites on sidewalks and crosswalks. If a black and white approached a doorway to a store at the same time, the black stepped aside or politely held the door. Whether in a home or on a street, in a cotton field or at a drinking fountain, the message of the codes was the same: blacks might live in close proximity to whites, but they should have no doubts about the "natural order of things." Recalling his childhood in the South, Melton A. McLaurin defined that order: "Like many such families in a small town, we assumed that blacks of the village were in residence primarily to serve us, and we used their labor to support our comfortable lifestyle."
The legal fiats of the legislators and the unwritten codes of a closed society were strictly enforced by legal and, increasingly, extralegal efforts. As one of the leading students of southern history and culture observed, the litmus test of a true southerner was belief that the South should "remain a white man's country." Jim Crow laws provided the framework for the notion. The Ku Klux Klan and other similar white supremacist organizations contributed additional, direct muscle for enforcement. Founded in 1866, the original Klan had battled northern attempts to reconstruct the racial order of the South. That Klan expired along with northern plans for a new racial configuration. The Klan was reborn on Thanksgiving night 1915 at Stone Mountain, Georgia, near where the immense bas relief of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson would one day be carved. Shaken by the pulse of modern America, the heartbeat movements of immigration, urbanization, and modernism, Klansmen drew a line in the red dirt, saying, in effect, "Enough!" They reached into their pockets for their dues, mumbled their oaths, and hooded their heads, paying homage to the doomed gods of their region's racial past.
To be sure, the Klan that grew and thrived after 1915 was not a single-issue organization. It was as much anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-evolution, and anti-alcohol as it was anti-black. And it blossomed in northern cities as well as southern villages. But its burning crosses and midnight rides struck terror in the hearts of southern blacks. Particularly in the South, Klansmen regarded blacks as symbols of America's lost Eden and fall from grace. In a very real sense, the sweet scent of magnolias and the swinging bodies in the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit" recall the primal fear engendered by the reign of the Klan.
An American—and not just southern—popular culture reinforced the racial order. The outrageous stereotypes of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century "coon songs" gave way to the dangerously racist plays and films of the second decade of the century. The year after Joe Louis was born, African Americans suffered several theatrical and pugilistic indignities. In theaters across the country the vilest, most distorted racism played to packed, cheering houses. That year, the Fox Film Corporation adapted Edward Sheldon's play The Nigger for the silver screen. The Harvard-educated Sheldon tells the story of a virtuous southern governor who discovers that he is a "quadroon," and this small amount of black blood, he reasons, renders him unfit for the rights and duties of white society. In quick order he resigns from office, forfeits his plantation, and breaks o his engagement to his white fiancée. Although a barrage of protests convinced Fox to change the title of the film to The Mystery of Morrow's Past, the production left no doubt that there was a "color line" in America, a division that not only separated the races but also governed the order of civilized life.
Excerpted from JOE LOUIS by Randy Roberts. Copyright © 2010 by Randy Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1 A Land Without Dreams.................... 1
2 Emperors of Masculinity.................... 24
3 Tethered by Civilization.................... 54
4 He Belongs to Us.................... 86
5 King Louis I.................... 121
6 Red, White, Blue, and Black.................... 142
7 The Last Perfect Night.................... 173
8 Uncle Sam Says.................... 198
9 An Old Man's Dream.................... 232
A NOTE ON SOURCES.................... 281
Posted August 24, 2011
No text was provided for this review.