Joe Louis as Civil Rights Pioneer

By Tom Donelson

Name the athlete who was most significant in the area of Civil Rights? The question, the answer you will receive most likely is Jackie Robinson. There is no doubt of Jackie Robinson contribution in breaking down the color barrier in baseball, which in 1947 was America’s game at that time.

Joe Louis in many ways was as much of a pioneer, if not more so than Jackie Robinson. Consider the time frame. While Joe Louis was not the first African-American heavyweight champion, he was the first African-American athlete to garner support through the White community. This a full decade before Jackie Robinson appeared in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. Today, a Michael Jordan can make millions selling shoes or any other products and I might add, make millions more for those companies. Jordan appeal crosses racial line, which is why he is a successful pitchman. Soon, that new face of American Sport will be Lebron James. Before Michael Jordan, there was Joe Louis.

The night that Joe Louis demolished Max Schmeling, a small earthquake was ignited when it came to race relation. Louis had all of American hopes and dream on his shoulder. He was not just fighting for segment of the population but for its whole. Nor can we assume this a certainty. Max Schmeling already demonstrated that he could beat Louis because he did it and he did it easily two years earlier. Max Schmeling did not just beat Louis in their first match, but over a period of twelve round, he gave Louis a shellacking.

The night that Louis beat Schmeling, all of America was with him but Louis contribution for Civil Rights has always been underestimated. As I mention, Louis popularity was able to transcend the color barrier. Unlike Jack Johnson, whose behavior scandalized White America, Louis portrayed the perfect gentleman. He did not gloat after winning and he kept his private life private away from the prying eyes of the media.

Louis was symbolic of something that was occurring through out America- the massive migration of African-Americans to the Northeast and Midwest. In the 1890, African-Americans began a massive migration to the Northeast and Midwest. This migration would continue through the middle of the 20th century. As Thomas Sowell observed that this was a primary a movement of young males in their prime. For the South, it meant a loss of human capital that would keep the South economically depressed compared to the rest of the country. For the North, this would bring new manpower for a bludgeoning job creating machine. One of those was the Barrow family, featuring a future heavyweight named Joe Louis.

Between 1940 and 1970, more than 4 million African-Americans made the trek and this was merely reflective of the trend that occurred since the days of the imposition of Jim Crow laws. African-Americans were escaping the racism and terror of the south for the North.

Louis was more than just a figure; he used his power either behind the scene or overtly to help African-American. His final act that showed the respect that he gathered was at his retirement. Louis anointed Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott as the two men who would vie for his title. Louis assured that his replacement would be an African-American and this would be the first time that an African-American succeeded another African-American as World Heavyweight Champion. Louis cemented the grip that African-Americans would hold over the heavyweight title till the Lennox Lewis era in the late 1990’s. And yet when Louis designated his successor, there were no controversy. At a time when Jackie Robinson was being booed or harassed by opposition players or fans, Louis could dictate the future of a sport and no one questioned his word. That is the respect that Louis gathered not just for himself, but also for his race. His reign as champion made it easier for Jackie Robinson to come into the Major Leagues.
As for sports, African-Americans formed their own leagues when they were not allowed to participate in various major leagues in the era before Jackie Robinson. As Baseball refused to allow African-Americans to participate, many entrepreneurial African-Americans formed their own leagues. Players such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige played away from the glaring light of the major league but they were as good as any white players. African-Americans barnstorming teams routinely beat white all stars in baseball off-season.

Players such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige played away from the glaring light of the major league but these future Hall of Famers never had the chance to play in the major leagues in their prime. African-Americans barnstorming team routinely beat white all stars in baseball off-season.

As for Basketball, the Harlem Globetrotters became the premier African-American team and in the late 40’s, they upset the NBA champion Minneapolis Lakers led by the great George Miken.

As Joe Louis domination of boxing ended and Professional baseball, basketball and football began integration; sports were leading the way toward integration. Boxing was ahead of the other sports in affording African-Americans opportunity to participate at its highest levels.

Until Joe Louis came along, many African-Athletes were all but invisible to White America. After he defeated Max Schmeling, they could not longer be ignored. The major institutions that lead the way in the integration of race were the sporting world and the military. By the time, the 40’s arrived; Professional sports were integrated along with the American armed forces. It would take the rest of American until the 60’s before the rest of America would deal with the issues of assimilation of African-Americans into the mainstream of America

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