Joe Louis, Jack Johnson & The Issue Of Race

28.12.05 - By Khalid Mohamed: Any issue to do about race is always sensitive and understandable, but when you talk bout the likes of Louis and Johnson, race is a factor. What I've got to say isn’t to insult or offend, but just to put my point across. Now, don't get me wrong, Joe Louis is one of my favorite boxers ever. His speed, power, combinations and skill won me over a long time ago, yet I always kept thinking of one thing: why was Louis so... well... domesticated? It's a nasty word, I know, but he seemed to be perfect for what white America wanted him to be, which got me thinking about Jack Johnson and his reign as champ and how it directly effected Louis.

Joe Louis and Jack Johnson were two men who defined an era but were remembered out of the ring for totally different reasons; Johnson, the drinking, gambling, womanizing speed freak, who gloated over his hurt opponents and broke taboos just to piss off white America, while Louis was the quiet, docile, bible reading kid, who stayed away from white women and served his country in the ring (against Schmeling) and in the army during WWII.

Louis' promoters created an image of the perfect anti-Johnson 'Negro' to popularize him to the white population, even though, in reality, he also lived the high life. Yet taking notice of all the mistakes Jack Johnson made, his promoters gave out this image that Louis was the total opposite of Johnson.

Johnson's was everything that 1900's white America feared - a big, powerful black man, who was rich, had relationships with white women, and was downright disobedient to the powers that be. In other words, white America’s worst nightmare. This created terms like, 'Unforgivable Blackness,' and the search for the “Great White Hope.” Yet Johnson’s up bringing does have a lot to do about of why he was so hostile to the establishment, considering that his parents were former slaves. He was one of six children, who lived in the south where lynching was a common place event, and all of the Black person’s experiences with white people growing up, was mostly negative. You can see why he resented the establishment. Let me make this clear, I’m not making excuses for the things he did, but you have to understand how he grew up and how his environment influenced him.

Personally, I don't like Johnson's high living ways, and how he gloated over fallen opponents. Frankly, that's just not my style, yet I still respect the man. Back in an era when lynching was common and non-whites were seen as inferior, he literally took on the whole of America and won, then gave them the finger.
Shortly before the Jeffries-Johnson fight, the ring side band played "All c***s look alike to me.'' At the same time, Jeffries said coming into the fight, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.'' All the while, the crowd were chanting "Kill the n****r,'' yet what does Johnson do? He beats the crap out of Jeffries, while at the same time, laughing! No matter your opinion on Johnson, you have to respect that.
However, Joe Louis was the total opposite in character; He was mostly quiet, friendly, never seen rocking the boat and humble in victory or defeat.

The fans loved Louis. However, in my opinion, white America never truly saw him as, saw him as “All American” hero. There are loads of accounts of his skill in the ring being referred to as ''Speed of the jungle'', ''Jungle frenzy'' and so on. To add insult to injury, he was famously not allowed into the White House. Instead, he met with President Franklin Roosevelt on the White House lawn, shortly before he took on Schmeling.
However, race did play a big role in Louis's image. For example, his nickname displayed it front and center for everyone to see, “The Brown Bomber.”
Louis did in a positive way promote the idea of black Heavyweight champs, yet in a way, we can look back and say ''you sold out'.' However, back then, there wasn't any other alternative. To be sure, you either did what the establishment wanted or you wouldn't be allowed to get a title shot, it’s that simple.

In my opinion, Johnson stained the image of black Heavyweight boxing for a long period of time, doing harm to the possible emergence of major black fights by ducking many of the other black fighters. This is also a point a lot of people forget or try to raise when talking about Jack Dempsey. However, to try and blame Johnson’s actions for single handily bringing black boxing down, is naive, especially when the likes of Greb, Ketchel and Sullivan lived it up, gambling, womanizing, drinking and so on. They were seen as playboys and as real man, yet when Johnson did the same thing, he was seen as evil and a disgrace to his race. No doubt,, there are double standards when talking about Johnson's behavior compared to other past white champions.
Johnson was black and was king of the most prestigious title in sport - the Heavyweight title of the world – which was good enough for most. However, they white media just used Johnson's actions against him as proof of his evil ways. From what I see, you can't blame Johnson for white America's racism against him. It's like blaming a battered wife for being abused instead of the abuser.

As we all know, the hunt for the ''Great white hope,'' initially failed and the only way to get rid of Johnson's grip on the title was to charge him of for violating the “Mann Act” for transporting his fiancé, and future wife, Lucille Cameron across state lines. It was not prostitution, as many people say, considering that it was his future wife. Another point people try to say is that Johnson disgraced his race by is actions. Again, this is debatable. A large portion of the Black people saw Johnson as a hero, liking him for his attitude and his refusal of “not knowing his place” and doing everything that he shouldn't in terms of social customs when dealing with white people, yet still getting away with it. One of the popular poems during this time showed the pride that the Blacks felt towards Johnson’s victory over a white: ''O my Lord, What a morning, O my Lord, What a feeling, When Jack Johnson Turned Jim Jeffries' Snow-white face to the ceiling.”

To understand the environment of Johnson's reign as champ and the racism of a large number of white America, just listen to the creator of Ring Magazine and Johnson fan Nat Fleischer, who wrote, "It seemed that a White Race cult had suddenly come into existence that took the stand that only a Caucasian heavyweight could hold the championship- a ridiculous situation." In 1915, the search for the Great white hope was answered when Jess Williard, a huge 6’6” white man, knocked out an old and out of shape Johnson in the scorching heat of the Cuban sun.

Louis had to be what white America wanted their Heavyweight 'Negro' to be; Mainly quiet, obedient, god-fearing and loyal to the establishment, after Johnson won the title, there were race riots around the country. There was no way white America was going to have another “Johnson-like” fighter as Heavyweight champ. To be sure, there were other black champions before Johnson, such as Gans, Dixon and 'Barbados' Joe Walcott, and even bare knuckle champions, like Richmond and Molyneaux. However, in 1900's, America, the Heavyweight Champion of the world had an aura to it, and being Heavyweight champion was the closest thing that the average Joe from the growing cities of the US or newly conquered west can get to being a king; If you were the heavyweight champion, you got nation wide fame, fortune, glory and there was no way a 'lesser race' would beat a white fighter and be Heavyweight champion.

With the changing moral opinions of the nation, Louis did help change the opinion's of many about black champions and without Louis, I doubt that there would have been a black heavyweight champion until the late 50's to early 60's. He proved that the skill in the ring counts more than the color of there skin. Louis might have been 'domesticated' to an extent, yet he truly opened the door for black champions and now is remembered as not just one of the greatest boxers ever, but also one of the most popular champions ever. For his part, Jack Johnson is still controversial and his legacy is still being debated to this day.

Article posted on 28.12.2005

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