Soldier Joe Louis stared down racism in the Army during World War II

Joe Louis served in the United States Army during World War II.

Joe Louis served in the United States Army during World War II.

With 2014 being the centennial of Joe Louis’s birth, it might be instructive to reflect on just what it was that made Detroit’s “Brown Bomber” such a beloved and respected figure. The affection and respect didn’t always have to do with his considerable boxing abilities. They had as much to do with his love of country, unselfishness, and personal dignity.

Those qualities were never on greater display than during Joe’s service during World War II. When talking once about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, history’s greatest heavyweight champion described his thoughts about the sucker punch that suddenly thrust him and millions of fellow Americans into war. “I was mad, I was furious, you name it,” Louis remembered. “Hell, this is my country. Don’t come around sneaking up and attacking it. If a fighter had done that to me, I would have smashed him. I’m strictly for fair deals and open fighting.”

Twenty-seven years old and in his boxing prime when the U.S. entered the war, Louis had already been a national figure and a geopolitical metaphor for years. In 1935, as world concerns grew over Italy’s bullying (and eventual invasion) of Abyssinia, he had methodically chopped down the Sequoia-size Primo Carnera, dealing a symbolic blow to Mussolini’s blackshirts. Three years later, Joe avenged his sole professional defeat up to that point by destroying German fighter Max Schmeling in a first-round blitzkrieg of punches that served as an allegorical prelude to World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt squeezed Joe’s bicep at the White House and declared that his were the kind of muscles the country was going to need to beat the Nazis.

Earlier in 1941, Louis had registered for the peacetime draft and been classified 1-A by a Chicago draft board. With war declared, he was certain to be called into uniform at some point. As the sole supporter of his wife, mother, and several family members, he might have qualified for a deferment, but he had no intention of avoiding conscription as heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey had controversially done during World War I.

The war could not have come at a more inopportune time for Louis. Although Joe was not the type to think in such terms, his longtime manager, Mike Jacobs, was. He realized Joe’s career likely would be put on hold for the duration of the war, and nobody knew how long that would be. Jacobs came up with an idea that was both patriotic and self-serving. He asked Louis if he would be willing to put his title on the line at a charity boxing event, with all of his winnings going to the Navy Relief Society? The organization aided the families of sailors killed in combat. Without hesitation, Joe said yes.

It was just like Jacobs to capitalize on the country’s patriotic fervor, and just like Joe not to give a second thought to risking his championship for zilch. Of course, Louis didn’t view it that way. “Ain’t fighting for nothing,” he told reporters. “I’m fighting for my country.”

Joe’s gesture inspired a fresh flush of affection among his countrymen. “You don’t see a shipyard owner risking his entire business,” Jimmy Powers wrote in the New York Daily News. “If the government wants a battleship, the government doesn’t ask him to donate it. The government pays him a fat profit….The more I think of it, the greater guy I see in this Joe Louis.”

Madison Square Garden was awash in red, white, and blue bunting the night of January 9, 1942. Joe’s opponent was Buddy Baer, a 6-foot-6, 250-pounder he had beaten the previous spring.

With a crowd of 16,889 looking on and a national radio audience listening in, Louis proceeded to snap Baer’s head back with a succession of fast, accurate punches, knocking him down three times. Baer was still trying to pull himself up by the ropes when he was counted out with four seconds left in the opening round. “The only way I could have beaten Joe that night was with a baseball bat,” he later said.

The winner’s share of the purse was $65,200. After deducting his training expenses, Louis donated the balance of $47,500 to Navy Relief. Baer chipped in a portion of his purse while Jacobs contributed $37,229, making for a grand total of $88,807.

The next day, Louis enlisted in the army. He took his physical, then reported for duty (via a chauffeured limousine) at Camp Upton on Long Island, New York. There he participated in a staged scene for the newsreels. As a clerk nervously typed out a form, he looked up and asked, “What’s your occupation?”

“Fighting,” Louis replied, “and let us at them Japs.”

But first, Joe’s new employer, jealous over the publicity the Navy had received, wanted him to fight for its pet charity, the Army Relief Fund. While Joe underwent basic training with a segregated company, Mike Jacobs lined up an opponent. He signed Abe Simon to meet Joe at Madison Square Garden on March 27, 1942. Once again he would risk his title with all proceeds going to charity, causing one newspaper to gush that “from almost angle you can consider, there has never been a champion like Joe Louis.”
At a dinner given by the Navy Relief Society on March 10 at the Garden, Joe uttered one of the most memorable lines of the war. Wearing his private’s uniform, he nervously stood at the dais placed in the center of the boxing ring and honored a request to say a few words. “I have only done what any red-blooded American would do,” he said. “We gonna do our part, and we will win, because we are on God’s side.”

Joe’s extemporaneous corruption of the familiar phrase that “God is on our side” brought a standing ovation and practically overnight leaped into popular usage. President Roosevelt sent a telegram complimenting his choice of words. It inspired a popular recruiting poster (“We’ll win because we’re on God’s side”), as well as a poem by ad man Carl Byoir, “Joe Louis Named the War,” which enjoyed wide circulation in the Saturday Evening Post.

Joe trained for the fight at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Having repeatedly turned down offers of an officer’s commission before enlisting, he enjoyed interacting with the ordinary G.I.s who turned out to watch him work out. The army’s policy of segregation, however, bothered him. Here were black Americans willing to risk their lives, “but they can’t sleep in the same barracks with the white guys or go to the same movies or hardly get in officer’s training.”

On fight night, Louis kayoed Simon in the sixth round. Ring announcer Don Dunphy used the knockout to symbolize the country’s resolve to defeat Japan and Germany, who in early 1942 clearly had the upper hand. “We won’t stop punching, just as Louis does, ‘til we win,” Dunphy declared. From his purse of $45,882, Joe deducted expenses and gave $36,146 to Army Relief. Contributions from Jacobs and Simon brought the total donation to $55,000.

Joe’s largesse was remarkable when considering his staggering debts. At the time, the $21-a-month private owed $217,000, more than half of which was claimed by the IRS for back taxes. Jacobs, who regularly advanced his fighters large sums against future purses, was owed $60,000 by Louis and $34,500 by another of his clients, Billy Conn. Nervous that he would ever get repaid, Jacobs proposed a blockbuster charity bout to pull everybody out of the hole. Louis and Conn would meet in a rematch of their storied 1941 title bout, when the underdog Conn was winning on points until he got cocky and tried knocking the champ out. Instead it was Conn who hit the canvas.

Jacobs easily sold the War Department on Louis-Conn II, tentatively scheduled for Yankee Stadium in October 1942. By late September, advance ticket sales and a record broadcast deal were pointing to a million-dollar gate. But to the consternation of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the original deal had been altered to allow the two fighters to deduct the money they owed Jacobs from the receipts. In addition, Jacobs demanded control of the first 20 rows of seats, an audacious money grab. Even with these modifications, the fight still would have produced as much as $750,000 for Army Relief. Nonetheless, Stimson abruptly called the fight off, explaining that it wouldn’t be fair to the millions of other GI’s who weren’t given similar opportunities to work off their debts while serving their country. He soon banned all similar projects for relief agencies.

Despite the contributions of millions of blacks to the war effort, America’s ingrained racism proved difficult to eradicate. Even Louis had to contend with some of the same problems faced by ordinary black soldiers. Once he and fellow boxer Sugar Ray Robinson were waiting for a bus at Camp Siebert in Alabama when a white MP told them to move to the “colored” station.

“What’s my color got to do with it?” said Joe, choking back his anger. “I’m wearing a uniform like you.”

“Down here,” the MP responded, “you do as you’re told.” With that he poked Joe in the ribs with his billy club. Moments later, Robinson jumped on the MP’s back and all hell broke loose. Louis and Robinson were hustled over to the jailhouse, where a colonel listened to their stories. The arresting MP was bawled out and the boxers released. Meanwhile, word had gotten around the base.

To diffuse the growing racial tension, Joe and Sugar Ray drove around in a jeep to show that everything was okay.

It really wasn’t, of course. But Joe’s approach to dealing with the prejudice he encountered, especially in the Deep South, was to tacitly accept Jim Crow restrictions off base, since he figured to have little success challenging local ordinances or customs.

However, on base he quietly but firmly used his position to effect change. He would privately demand of a commanding officer that the crowd attending one of his exhibitions be integrated or else he would refuse to box. When he came across a particularly egregious example of racism, he would place calls to high-placed friends in Washington. In terms of Joe’s activism, the brouhaha at Camp Siebert was unusual in that it got into the newspapers. But the publicity had a positive effect. Soon after the incident, the army ordered all military busses to be desegregated.

Louis was the centerpiece of arguably the most influential U.S. propaganda film to come out of the war, The Negro Soldier. In 1943, the War Department, under fire for its discriminatory practices, ordered Colonel Frank Capra to produce a documentary that would educate all servicemen, especially whites, about the accomplishments of blacks throughout American history. Capra, who’d won three Academy Awards for best director before becoming chief of the Army Pictorial Service, was a populist who was a master at injecting mild social commentary into his films.

Capra turned the proselytizing up several notches for The Negro Soldier. In fact, the 40-minute documentary was presented in the form of a preacher delivering a sermon. In the film, the preacher tells his flock that he’d been at the second Louis-Schmeling fight, which he presents as an allegory for the war. Over footage of the two opponents in the ring and then in military training, he says: “In one minute and 49 seconds an American fist won a victory….This time it’s a fight not between man and man, but between nation and nation. A fight for the real championship of the world, to determine which way of life shall survive.”

In terms of audience size, The Negro Soldier rivaled any of Capra’s previous box-office hits. It was released free to more than 3,500 commercial theaters and was required viewing for all members of the armed forces. While it’s impossible to gauge the short film’s impact on promoting racial tolerance, it received overwhelmingly positive reviews, especially from the initially skeptical black press, accustomed as it was to Hollywood stereotypes. Abe Hill of the Amsterdam News marveled: “Who on earth thought such a thing could be done so accurately—without propaganda, without sugarcoating, and without the jackass clowning the movie acting Negro usually degrades himself to….The movie succeeds in proving that this is the Negro’s war. He is too deeply rooted in the making of this great country—he has as much at stake in its destiny as any other waver of the red, white, and blue.”

Joe, who eventually rose to the rank of sergeant, spent most of the war www exhibition bouts and visiting hospitals across the U.S. and overseas. Although he was never a combatant, he had his share of close calls. He survived several days of V-12 rocket attacks in London and an emergency landing aboard a crippled bomber. Once he was photographed pulling the lanyard of an artillery piece in Italy; the next day it malfunctioned and the barrel exploded, killing several soldiers.

The war officially ended on September 2, 1945, with Japan’s surrender. On October 1, Joe was discharged at Camp Shanks, New York. With the exception of the occasional ugly incident, he had enjoyed being just plain old GI Joe during his 45 months of duty. Free from his handlers, he was forced to become more self-reliant. “When I didn’t have them around to think for me and tell me what to eat and when to go to bed, I had to figure things out myself,” he said later. “I grew up in the army.”

He had also grown in the nation’s consciousness and in its esteem. No longer was he thought of as the inscrutable “sepia slugger” of prewar days. The needs of a country at war had humanized him, transforming him into a friendly, dignified, and reassuring symbol of national resolve and “a quiet parable in racial good will,” as one national magazine put it. He’d traveled more than 70,000 miles, fought 96 exhibitions, and been seen in person by about 5 million service members. Tens of millions of others had seen him featured in newsreels and films and on recruiting posters. Americans, even those who didn’t follow boxing, were aware that he had donated the purses of two title fights and had “named the war.”

There would be a few dings in the prizefighter’s public image during the second half of his life. But when he died in 1981, there was no question where he would be buried. Sgt. Joseph Louis Barrow rests at Arlington National Cemetery, in the company of patriots and heroes.