On this day in 1914, one of the most iconic sports’ heroes in American history, Joe Louis, was born in Chambers County, Alabama. Louis is one of a handful of professional athletes who had a cultural impact transcends sports and makes him one of the most important figures in U.S. History. Few individuals have been so important in turning the United States into a truly integrated melting pot of the races.
At age 12, Louis’ family moved from rural Alabama to Detroit, as part of what historians have called “The Great Migration,” the widespread movement of African-Americans who fled desperate poverty and racism in the rural South in hopes of finding new opportunities in the industrialized North in the years after World War I.
Like millions of other Americans, Louis’ family struggled terribly during the depression era of the 1930s. Yet, the popular story told about a teenage Louis is that his mother managed to come up with a quarter per week so that she could pay for her son to take violin lessons. Instead, young Louis rented a locker at the local athletic club and began training as a pugilist, carrying his gloves in the violin case.
Louis was a great athlete and a natural puncher. He quickly established himself as a fixture in Detroit’s active amateur boxing scene. In the years following Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, the heavyweight title languished in the hands of lesser lights, so the sport was ripe for the emergence of a new hero.
To develop Louis’ natural abilities, former lightweight star Jack Blackburn was brought in to train him. Blackburn developed Louis into a near-perfect heavyweight fight. He combined a piston jab with exceptional lateral movement, allowing him to cut off the ring and set up his dangerous straight right.
Louis captured the heavyweight title from James Braddock in 1936 and would hold it until his first retirement in 1948, during which time he made a record 26 defenses. He knocked out six other men who held the heavyweight title: Jack Sharkey, Max Schmeling, Primo Carnera, Max Baer, James Braddock and Joe Walcott.
Louis’ importance to the African-American community in the 1930s cannot be overstated. In addition to his ring heroics, he starred in movies and recorded hit songs. When Louis fought, rural black towns and big city neighborhoods would come to a standstill. Maya Angelou’s memoir contains an outstanding account of her local community rallying around the radio to cheer for Louis when she was a girl in the rural South.
But Louis would also become the first African-American embraced as a hero by large portions of the white public. His June 1938 defense against Schmeling is the most important sporting event in U.S. history. Schmeling, a former champion, had knocked an inexperienced Louis out in a previous fight two years prior. Although Schmeling appears to have been an honorable sportsman, the political atmosphere of his native Germany was toxic during that era, and he was forced into the unfortunate role of serving as Hitler’s champion for the “master race.”
With Nazi aggression on the march in Europe and World War II looming, Louis’ 1938 rematch with Schmeling took on significance far beyond the importance it held as a sporting event. When Louis visited the White House, President Roosevelt felt his bicep and declared “We’re going to need muscles like yours in the years ahead, Joe.” With the showdown looming, Louis suddenly found himself in the role of “our guy” to the entire nation. Against the champion of a racist “master race”, Louis was the champion of multi-cultural Democracy.
At Madison Square Garden, Louis made quick work of Schmeling, battering him from the opening bell and stopping him in the very first round. It was the launch of his career as a national hero and icon.