When Joe Louis fought in Kansas City on February 17, 1937, Boss Tom Pendergast was in power, jazz was jumping downtown, and black athletes were decades from being accepted as equal to their white counterparts. In fact, some historians believe that Louis' only local fight, against Jewish-American boxer Natie Brown at Municipal Auditorium, was the first interracial sporting event in Missouri history.
According to BoxRec, "After three tame rounds, Louis opened up with a fusillade of rights and lefts to head and body and Brown went down for the count in 0:42 of the fourth. When the count was completed, Natie arose and made as if to attack Louis, but was restrained." Louis won by KO in the fourth round.
Four months later, Louis defeated James J. Braddock ("Cinderella Man") to win the heavyweight title, which he held for a still-unbroken record of 13 years.
Louis will again be on the minds of Kansas Citians tonight at Central, when Purdue University historian Randy Roberts discusses his new biography, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man. The free event begins at 6:30, following a 6 p.m. reception. (Parking is free with validation. Please RSVP if you wish to attend.)
In Hard Times Man, Roberts (whose biographies of boxers Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson were each nominated for the Pulitzer), writes, "By 1937, Louis had become the most visible expression of racial progress. It seemed as if Joe was what every black youth wanted to be when he grew up and what every old man wished he had been."
In his well-researched account, Roberts traces Louis' rise from poverty in Jim Crow America to becoming one of the most famous men in the country in the '30s and '40s, through his tragic decline amid crippling, self-inflicted financial troubles and mental illness brought on by fighting for money long after he should’ve retired.
But there was a time when the Brown Bomber was a hero to Americans of all colors.
The most illustrious chapter in Louis' life came in 1938, on the eve of World War II, when Louis stepped into the ring against German heavyweight Max Schmeling for the second time. Though Louis had lost their first match, in 1936, two years later, with war on the horizon, Louis carried into Yankee Stadium the hope of a nation facing war against the Nazis.
Though racial violence was still very much alive in our country, America had no trouble backing a black man when Hitler was in the opponent's corner. "Joe, we're depending on those muscles for America," President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said.
Those muscles didn't fail. Louis knocked out Schmeling just two minutes and four seconds into the first round.
Part biography of a great man, part cultural history of a nation in turmoil, Hard Times Man is thrilling from the first bell to the last. Learn more about the exciting life and times of Joe Louis tonight at the Kansas City Public Library.
-- Jason Harper