Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America

By Patrick B. Miller; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview
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7

JOE LOUIS

American Folk Hero

William H. Wiggins, Jr.

Hail the king! Make way for the kingAnd everybody does. Along Route 2
which leads to Pompton Lakes you see thousands of people scattered, peering
through brush and over harvester machines all straining for one purpose-to see
Joe Louis…as it (Joe Louis car) passes…you hear screams and yells by the
townfolks… Soon you begin to think this Joe Louis must be a hero.

-Chicago Defender, February 15, 1936

WHO WAS JOSEPH Louis BARROW? What were the physical, personal, and spiritual qualities that he possessed that made him a genuine American folk hero? What were some of his heroic words and deeds at the time of the Great Depression and during World War II, which are still cited today by many Americans of all races, creeds, and colors? This chapter will attempt to answer these questions by looking at the first twenty-eight years of Joe Louis's life. The period covered begins on May 13, 1914, when he was born, the seventh child of poor sharecroppers Lillian and Monroe "Mun" Barrow, on a farm near Lafayette, Alabama, and ends on March 10, 1942 in Madison Square Garden, where Joe Louis gave a memorable patriotic speech at a big World War II rally. In less than half of his life (he died of a massive, heart attack on April 12, 1981, a month shy of his sixty-seventh birthday) Joe Louis had risen from his humble birth as just another unknown brown baby to international celebrity status as the one and only "Brown Bomber."

Joe Louis's fistic comet flashed across a dark and foreboding America. It was the time of the Great Depression and World War II, two periods that left a deep and lasting impression on American culture. Both eras unleashed a sense of fear and uncertainty among Americans, the consequences of which are still evident in some aspects of contemporary life and thought. The economic devastation of the Great Depression seriously eroded the confidence that most Americans had in the free enterprise system and in the American Dream of success through hard work and thrift. Some of the unemployed who were forced to stand in soup lines for their daily sustenance began to doubt the reality of that dream. Their precious hopes for a better life lay dashed amid the rubble of the 1929 stock market crash. During the 1930s, a significant number of American parents went to bed each night fearful that they and their children would be doomed to a bleak, poor existence unless the economy turned around soon. They would always be one of the have-nots and never one of the haves.

World War II was their second cultural nightmare. With each successive conquest, Nazi Germany, with its impressive military might and political ideology of Aryan supremacy,

-127-

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