When Joe Louis fought Schmeling, white America enthusiastically cheered for the black man

Nearly 84 years ago on June 22, 1938, the heavyweight bout turned into Roosevelt vs. Hitler, Democracy vs. Fascism, and Good vs. Evil.

On the evening of June 22, 1938, Joe Louis walked across the lawn of Yankee Stadium with a hooded robe over his broad shoulders and the weight of his country resting on his shoulders.

This was to be the fourth world title defense, and undoubtedly the most significant. Much has changed since his rival Max Schmeling inflicted the first loss of his career on Louis two years earlier. The American now cared no less about the fate of the world than about hooks and crosses. Adolf Hitler’s army began to march across Europe, and the Nazis herded Jews into concentration camps. For the 80,000 fans gathered at Yankee Stadium, Schmeling’s nationality mattered most – he was German and Hitler cited him as evidence of the racial superiority of the Aryans.

The fact that Louis-Schmeling II was the prelude to war seemed not such a big exaggeration: it was believed that if Louis defeated Schmeling, America would definitely be able to knock out the Fuhrer himself. The fight, with all its political implications, turned into a duel between Roosevelt and Hitler, Democracy versus Fascism, and Good versus Evil.

And for a short time, everything changed in race relations in America.

About 100 million people around the world listened to boxing on the radio. In Germany, where it was the middle of the night, 20 million were impatiently waiting for Schmeling to prove the superiority of the Aryans over the blacks. In the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, a predominantly German-American neighborhood, all eyes were also on Schmeling. But almost everyone in the US was rooting for Luis. American Jews prayed that Louis would strike at anti-Semitism. African Americans saw a chance to undermine white supremacy. And white Americans, many of whom never wanted Louis or any black man to hold the heavyweight title of the world, suddenly wanted to see the “Brown Bomber” crush the Nazi.

As boxing historian Thomas Houser wrote in The Guardian:

“This marked the first time that many white Americans openly supported a black against a white opponent. In addition, for the first time, many have heard how a black man is simply called “American”.

Ralph Matthews, writing for the Baltimore Afro-American, put it this way:

“Joe had the advantage of being an American in the first place, and although he was a member of a group of American minorities who were despised to some extent, but when the choice arose between him and a foreigner, he received support. Most would have preferred the title to remain in America, even if it was the efforts of a black guy, than to see it taken across the ocean.”

Louis did not forget about the hypocrisy:

“White Americans,” he said many years later, “even though some of them lynched blacks in the South, wanted me to knock out a German. The whole damn country was worried about me.”

But just because the whites were rooting for Louis didn’t mean they considered him their equal. The mainstream media mostly portrayed black fighters as some kind of inferior species. Yes, some reporters pictured Luis for what he was: a technically brilliant fighter who worked his way up the ratings by running six hours a day, sparring five days a week and defeating all of his opponents. But countless others considered him a primitive savage or a lazy black from the south. To them, he defeated white boxers not by his superiority in sweet science, but rather by his instincts – revealing the primitive traits embedded in his African DNA.

Bill Corum, a columnist for the New York Evening Journal, described the young fighter a year before his rematch against Schmeling:

“Joe Louis is a man for whom thinking or trying to think is a clear weakness. An attempt to afford such a luxury will destroy him faster than the barrenness of the earth. He is a large, superbly built black man who was born to listen to jazz, there is a fried bird, play a ball with a gang on the corner and never do a hard work from which he could dodge. Most likely, all these inclinations are quite natural for him.

Grantland Rice, a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, was more concise:

“A great black boxer is rarely the product of labor, like many white boxers. He was born that way.”

Of course Louis was familiar with American racism. He grew up in Alabama, and when he moved to Detroit and worked on a conveyor belt at Ford’s River Rouge plant, he changed from a sharecropper’s cabin to a ghetto apartment building. As in the South, white communities in the North had no place for black teachers, black doctors, or black lawyers.

Blacks were also often excluded from boxing. This was especially true of heavy weight – the weight category that brought the greatest fame, attention and money. Many whites still have not been able to forget the first black champion, Jack Johnson. The Galveston Giant won the heavyweight title in 1908 and ruled for seven years, breaking almost every racial taboo of the era. He boasted of his wealth, taunted white opponents, and, at a time when a simple conversation with a white woman could result in a black man being lynched, openly dated and married white women. It was Johnson who inspired white America to create the first Great White Hope. It was previous world champion Jim Jefferies, who was naturally white but far from being great when Johnson beat him 14 rounds and stopped him in the 15th stretch of a 45-round fight.

When Joe Louis Boxed Nazi Favorite Max Schmeling

Louis’ path to becoming world heavyweight champion was largely about proving that he was what Johnson was not – obedient, polite and safe for whites. His managers, Julian Black and John Roxborough, created a code of conduct for their young fighter: never gloat over a fallen enemy, always appear humble, and never be alone with a white woman. In short, they made Luis the perfect black for a white man.

Years later, when Luis remained a debt-laden, cocaine-addicted shell of his former self, Muhammad Ali referred to the former champion as “Uncle Tom,” never once mentioning that Luis lived in a different era. Louis’ time was a period of brutal segregation, when blacks were not allowed to share public spaces with whites – let alone play professional baseball, football or basketball with them. It was Louis who convinced white people that it was okay to root for a black person. Without Joe Louis, there might never have been Muhammad Ali.

Luis’ status in the black community as “half role model, half savior” took root as he knocked out opponent after opponent. As Louis marched towards the title, winning 31 of his first 32 fights, he received wide headlines, especially in black-owned newspapers. On any given day, readers of the New York Amsterdam News, the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Atlanta Daily World, or the Chicago Defender could open the newspaper and see a picture of Louis eating at a restaurant, Louis relaxing at boot camp, Louis reading the Bible. And that gave rise to stories. In one, most likely fictional, a black prisoner was about to be executed in North Carolina. Legend has it that when the poisonous gas filled the man’s lungs, he shouted, “Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe.”

Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was a young girl from rural Arkansas when Luis made the ascent. In her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she recounts listening to Luis and Italy’s Primo Carnera fight at Yankee Stadium in 1935. She and her older brother Bailey sat at the radio in her grandmother’s grocery store, the only black-owned store in town. The house was filled with neighbors who came to hear Luis knock out fighter Benito Mussolini.

They must have enjoyed the early rounds as the 6ft 2in Louis beat out the 6ft 6in Carnera. But as Carnera’s strikes began to find their mark, Angelou and her comrades literally felt that their own bodies were being shaken by these strikes.

“My race groaned,” wrote Angelou. “This was another lynching, another black man hanging on a tree … If Joe loses, we will be in slavery again and we will no longer have any help. Everything would become true: accusations that we are an inferior type of people. Just a little taller than the monkeys. We didn’t breathe. We didn’t hope. We waited”.

Louis rallied and knocked out Carnera in the sixth round. However, he didn’t get a title shot until two years later, and only after his promoter Mike Jacobs was forced into an unprecedented deal. The agreement was as follows: in order to bring Louis into the ring with then-champion James Braddock, Jacobs had to guarantee Braddock 10 percent of Louis’ fees for the next 10 years. Louis knocked out the champion in the eighth round and spent the next decade paying Braddock for the privilege of going into the ring with him.

The upcoming Louis-Schmeling II fight quickly became one of the most anticipated sporting events of the 20th century. Schmeling was portrayed as the most one-dimensional of enemies – a Nazi. In truth, he seemed more like an opportunist, ready to say whatever was necessary to advance his career. He appeared to Hitler as a ready-made symbol of Aryan superiority, and repeatedly stated to boxing promoters in New York that he was not a member of the Nazi Party. But

By the time Louis stepped into the 20-foot square ring at Yankee Stadium, it seemed almost everyone on the planet was tuned into the radio.

In Harlem, the bustling river-streets turned into dried-up streams as everyone huddled in apartments, bars, and clubs.

In Plains, Georgia, future President Jimmy Carter, aged 14, couldn’t wait to fight. The Carters had no electricity, so Jimmy’s father, Earl, connected the radio to a car battery. A few dozen field workers came up to listen, so Earl placed the device by the window.

As announcer Garry Balog stepped into the center of the ring and introduced the fighters, Americans of all stripes leaned forward, eagerly waiting for NBC announcer Clem McCarthy to announce the action.

Uncharacteristically, Yankee Stadium was completely dark, except for a beam of light that fell on the ring. And there was Louis – the hero of the black community, the symbol of democracy, the only Black Great White Hope in history.

By that time, Louis was a much more experienced fighter than in the first fight against Schmeling. Since then, he has fought 12 fights and won them all, scoring 11 knockout victories, and also spent months training to neutralize Schmeling’s right.

When the bell rang, Louis wasted no time. He came out firing lefts, rights, uppercuts and combinations.

“I knew my whole career depended on that one fight,” he later said. “It was all or nothing.”

The champion’s strikes were heavy and devastating, delivered accurately and quickly. Schmeling fell to his knees, and when he got up, Louis again knocked him down.

Record books show that everything took two minutes and four seconds. It was at this point that Schmeling’s trainer Max Mahon jumped into the ring to save his fighter, and referee Arthur Donovan raised Louis’ hand in victory.

According to David Margolick’s book “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis Vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink”, the audience at the stadium was plunged into euphoria. Whites hugged blacks. Jews threw racial epithets at Schmeling. American actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was seated at the ringside, shouted to the Schmeling fans behind her: “I told you you sons of bitches!”

In Germany, the words of radio announcer Arno Helmis were listened to by disappointed listeners.

“I will still tell his little blond wife in Berlin that Maxi is getting up. His eyes are not cut and his face is intact…”.

The connection was gone, presumably because the Third Reich didn’t want to dwell on the fact that a black man had just overthrown their Aryan hero.

But history could not be rewritten.

As Haywood Brown wrote the following day in the New York World-Telegram:

“A hundred years from now, some historian might suggest, at least in a footnote, that the decline in Nazi prestige began with a left hook thrown by a former uneducated worker who had never studied the politics of Neville Chamberlain and had no opinion about the situation in Czechoslovakia.”

In black communities across the country, people celebrated like never before. In Harlem, makeshift bands appeared on doorsteps and under streetlights. Author Richard Wright described the scene as:

“One hundred thousand blacks jumping out of pubs, apartments, restaurants, filled the streets and sidewalks like the Mississippi River overflowing during a flood. Turning their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a cry of joy that seemed to come from incalculable reserves of strength.

In the South, celebrations took a different form. In La Fayette, Alabama, where Luis was born, a group of black residents gathered at a local restaurant to listen to the fight. According to the Pittsburgh Courier:

“When the fight was over, they shook hands quickly and suddenly, hugged, went out and went to their homes, shouting from time to time, in the dark streets.”

Likewise, Jimmy Carter’s black neighbors held back their enthusiasm.

“The customs of the South prevailed,” Carter said many years later. “The black listeners didn’t make a sound. Nothing. Just absolute silence after Louis’ victory, and then they crossed the railroad tracks, a couple of hundred yards and all hell broke loose. They partyed all night until early morning, almost daylight, showing they were proud of Joe Louis.”

The country was still divided. And Hitler, of course, continued his manic march to world power. But it cannot be denied: on the night of June 22, 1938, when the lights went out at Yankee Stadium, when the radio stations went silent, when the cheers of Harlem became a distant echo, Joe Louis was no longer a “black champion.”

He became an American champion.