Camera Rolls: 317:38-42
Sound Rolls: 317:20-22
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Joe Louis Barrow, Jr. , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on February 27, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Take one, Joe Barrow.
OK, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ? My first question is, what was it, what was it about Joe Louis that captured the imagination of black people, I mean, there were so many, why a boxer? Why him?
I think Joe Louis captured the imagination of black Americans simply because Joe Louis was the champion at a time when black America needed a hero. He was the champion when they were looking for hope. It was a segregated America, there was prejudice, there was bigotry. Blacks couldn't go certain places, they couldn't walk certain places, they couldn't eat certain places. They weren't equal in this country, and because of that, they were looking for someone that they could react to, that they could look up to, who would gave [sic] them a sense of self-worth, and that was Joe Louis.
Why Joe Louis? Why not W.E.B. Du Bois, or A. Philip Randolph, or somebody from the NAACP, I mean, there were scholars, there were scientists, there were other people. Why a boxer?
Joe Louis touched everyone because he was heavyweight champion, and
at the time, no black man could not be heavyweight champion of the world. White America kept the heavyweight championship as their province, ever since Jack Johnson and the legacy of Jack Johnson,
** blacks were off-limits to the heavyweight title. So when all of a sudden, Joe Louis excelled, and they gave him a shot at the title, and he won the title, and he held that title with dignity and grace, he'd also, all of a sudden, conquered white America, frankly. He sort of, walked places that they didn't they'd ever be able to walk, and he held everyone's love and everyone's stature, not just black people.
What were some of the obstacles that, you know, that stood in his way from getting to the championship? I mean, some of the, obviously he fought his way there, but what stood in his way, what were some of the things about America or the sport, that kept him-
Can he call him his father? Sorry to interrupt, but...
[ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] his father again?
Can I what?
Well, in this case...you can refer to him as—
What are we doing, what's the question?
I guess, let's stop.
So what was it about your father, and again, not so much just being heavyweight champion, that thrilled people?
I think one of the greatest things about my father was, that he was, he came from poor beginnings.
He was seventh of eight children in Chambers County, Alabama,
** they went to the ghettos of Detroit, and out of the ghettos of Detroit, he went and achieved one of the highest, highest, most respected positions in the world of sports, and frankly, in the world. The heavyweight champion of the world was king, if you will, the most powerful individual in the world, just like today they talk about the fastest human being, the heavyweight champion of the world was the most powerful individual. And the fact of the matter was, that here was a black man who held the most powerful position in the world, a position that heretofore was not available to blacks. All of a sudden, you see a black man from the ghetto achieving that. I think he touched every black person in this country.
Why wasn't it available to blacks? What was it—
Well, the legacy of Jack Johnson, and the way he was heavyweight champion in the early 1900's, really said to white America that they don't want another black man, because he jeered his opponents. He made his opponents feel, who were mostly an all white [sic], feel like they were inferior, and white America's ego couldn't stand for a black man to taunt his ego over white America's. They weren't willing to accept a black man in that position, because, frankly, blacks weren't able to walk where they wanted to walk, they couldn't eat where they wanted to eat, they couldn't sleep, it was segregation. It was bigotry in the worst, whether it was in the north or in the south, blacks were limited to where they could go and what they could do. Suddenly, a black person reigning supreme in this province that was limited to, only to whites, that was something that gave black people across this country a phenomenal, phenomenal sense of pride and dignity.
We have to change reels.
We, OK... sorry, I'm just—
—nine, sound roll change twenty-one, take three.
OK, so why don't you tell me the story that your, about your grandmother when [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Alabama, and what they decided to do.
My parents grew up in, my father grew up in Chambers County, Alabama,
and they were sharecroppers, and I suspect they would have still stayed in Alabama, except
** for the fact that my aunt told me a story, of how, one night, my grandmother and my step-grandfather, Pat Brooks, were coming back from visiting a person across the county,
** who had been ill. They were driving back at night, and all of a sudden they were stopped by the Klu Klux Klan, and the Klan was gonna pull them out of the car and do whatever that they do,
** that the Klan does when it starts pulling black people out of the cars in the South, particularly the deep South. All of a sudden this person recognized Pat Brooks, and said, Oh, that's Pat Brooks, he's a good nigger. Let's leave him alone.
** At that point, my mother and Pat said, We're taking our families north. We're leaving the south, we're not going to live in this anymore. Not that they needed to leave, or they wanted to leave, but they felt, to give their children the opportunities that they needed, they had to get away from the repression of the deep south.
Great, great, thank you. Can you cut for a second?
Can you go back?
Well, when my father first started out, he wasn't the great heavyweight champion that he eventually became, and he had some tough times starting out. He had some tough times and he had some very tough losses when he was an amateur, but yet, he didn't give up. I think one of the reasons he didn't give up was because, he wanted to do it, and he had the strength of the family behind him. You know, my grandmother said, as much she didn't want Joe to be in that ring, she said, if her son wanted to be a fighter, he had to be the best fighter. There's one thing that we all learned, and my father passed it on to me and my mother reinforced it, is, you stick to it, you don't give up, and I think that's some of the tenacity that Joe Louis had, because of his upbringing. I mean, you had enough external factors to say you couldn't do anything. When you could control it, and get back in that ring, go back at that profession, you'd do it.
Tell us the story about, actually, when he started boxing, your, your grandmother didn't know about, she gave him, I guess this is a classic 'golden boy', I mean, you think of golden boy when you think of this, of this story.
A lot of people didn't realize why, why my father used 'Joe Louis' instead of our family name, Joe Louis Barrow, and the major story was that, when he was young,
>my grandmother wanted him to be a violinist, and you know, here was my father, a big, huge, strong individual, and his good buddy Thirsty McKenny said, Joe, you can't be playing no fiddle, you gotta be in the boxing ring.
** So Thirsty conned my father into going to Brewster Gymnasium in Detroit, and that's where he started taking boxing lessons, so he was using the twenty-five cents that my grandmother was giving him for violin lessons to rent a locker at Brewster Gymnasium. So he does this for about six or seven weeks, until the violin instructor comes by the house and says, Ms. Brooks, where's my student? She said, what do you mean where's your student?
** He said, Well, he hasn't been to his violin lessons, Well, that Joe's been telling me he's been at those violin lessons. So I like to say that night, when he came home, he had a little 'come to Jesus', 'cause his mother wanted to know where that twenty-five cents was going, because in those days twenty-five cents was twenty-five cents. He explained to her that he was using it for boxing
** lessons as opposed to violin, and she didn't like it, but she said, Joe, if you want to be a boxer, you be the best boxer you can.
OK. But it's curious, you brought up the thing about the changing of the name.
How does that, how does that fit in, the changing-
Well, the real, the real story on the changing of the name is not the fact that he was trying to hide the fact that he was starting to box from his mother, and use Louis, because she didn't, she wouldn't expect to see that in the papers. The real reason, I learned, when I was doing my book, was that he had a huge signature, and he was trying to fill out an amateur boxing card, and all he could get on that card was 'Joe Louis', he couldn't fit the 'Barrow' on it. So, the white guy who was taking the registration said, Oh, Louis is fine, it won't matter, it doesn't matter, it's just a name. The most prolific name in sports, or one of the most prolific names in sports, and this guy says it doesn't matter. It was that inconsequential, Joe Louis just couldn't write his whole name on a registration card.
OK, cut for a second.
OK. Tell me a little bit, not in great detail, but tell me a little bit about who John Roxborough was and how he came to manage your father.
Well, John Roxborough first saw my father in Richard[?] Gymnasium in Detroit, and John Roxborough was a very successful numbers guy in Detroit, and learned of, learned of my dad and his boxing prowess, and my dad needed a manager. John Roxborough felt that my father had the talent, and talked with him about going professional, and he said he would manage him, and that's how they got together. But John Roxborough knew that the, he needed a partner, and that's when he hooked up with Julian Black down in Chicago, but most importantly, my father needed a trainer. He needed a trainer of the caliber who could take him to the heavyweight championship of the world, and that's when they got Jack Blackburn. Chappy, as they called him, Jack Blackburn, was probbaly the most significant influence on my father's life, barring anyone, he literally was like a father-figure to my dad. He really loved Joe Louis in such a way that only a father/son relationship can be there. Chappy and my father had just this warm, gracious relationship, and later in life, when Chappy left, you could see that my father was very lost.
Great. Chappy didn't react very positively the first time, though. Tell us about how, when Joe Louis showed up and they were asking him to take him...
Jack Blackburn was a sort of grufty [sic], tough guy, and he was a realist, and when John Roxborough and Julian Black showed up with this black heavyweight, telling Chappy that he was gonna be the next heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Blackburn says, Baloney. That's not gonna happen, white America will not let a black man be heavyweight champion of the world, so I'm not gonna spend my time fussing with this, with this guy from Detroit, with this kid. Well, what happened was, they went into the gym and they talked, and he saw that my father had the talent, but he still didn't think he would get a shot at the title. To the extent that when they first set up the arrangements, Jack Blackburn said he would take a weekly salary, as opposed to a percentage of the earnings, which the trainers normally do. Eventually, Chappy found that it was probably more lucrative for him to get a piece of the action, because this Joe Louis was going to the top. But that was only after they established a relationship, a rapport, and Jack Blackburn really understood who Joe Louis was, not only as a fighter but as a young man growing up. I think that relationship is really, once my father left the family, and once he left the family influences, Jack Blackburn was as responsible for keeping Joe Louis's focus as anyone. From time to time my father got out of it, but the realities are, Jack Blackburn was a tremendous influence on Joe Louis.
What about this business of, of 'the Commandments'? You know, they said, Is this sort of a calculated move, this, the Roxborough/Blackburn Team, the idea of, how are we gonna get this guy a shot?
Well, there was always that concern that white America wouldn't let a black have a shot at the title, and that's because of Jack Johnson. But the realities are, that, they felt the only way they could do that is make sure that Joe Louis or whoever the next champion contender might be would not do and replicate what Jack Johnson had done. So they purportedly set out these commandments, you know, 'Joe will never be seen with a white woman', 'he will never jeer his opponents', 'he will never do this, he will never do that', but
the fact of the matter is that Joe Louis would have never done that anyway.
** Joe Louis was a humble individual, he was a quiet individual, he was reserved, he was caring, he was loving, he was never bragadocious, because that was his upbringing, that was the family life that he had,
** that was the family life that he shared. In talking with my aunts and uncles, my father never fought when he was a youngster. In fact, my, my aunt Eunice used to do all the fighting, because she had the red hair, and people weren't used to seeing this light-skinned black woman with red hair, and they used to tease her about being a carrot top. She used to get in these big, huge fights, so one time, she's in a fight with this young girl, and all of a sudden my father, as big as he is, walks by the fight and sees his little sister being beaten up. Walks back to the house and tells my grandmother, Your little girl's out there fighting again. Now he didn't break it up, he didn't get into it, he didn't mix it up, she always told me Joe Louis never got into fights, never got into confrontations when he was a youngster, so they were flabbergasted when he decided to be a boxer, it was just totally out of the realm of possibilities for, for my dad.
Great. [laughs] That's a great story. Can we cut for a second?
Yes. We had-
With all the prejudice and segregation, there was a real question whether or not my father would ever get a shot at the title, and John Roxborough knew that. I mean, John Roxborough approached Madison Square Garden and the powers to be, and the realities are, they weren't gonna listen to him.
** So, Roxy knew that if he really wanted to take Joe Louis to the top, that the only way that they could do that is to really link up with a great promoter, and there was Mike Jacobs. Essentially, they knew that Mike Jacobs was hungry. He wanted to bust up the Madison Square Garden hold on boxing, and that's when Mike Jacobs formed the Twentieth Century Boxing Club, and Joe Louis was one of the first fighters that he signed, knowing that, the responsibility he had of getting Joe Louis the shots at the title.
Great. But when, is that it?
Yes, we have twenty, twenty [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
OK, so if you could tell me that story about trying to—and his response to...
One of the ground rules that was very clear, and in the boxing game in the '20s, '30s, and'40s it was a tough game, as it is today, and one of the rules that Roxborough and everybody wanted to play by was that Joe Louis could fight any opponent whenever he wanted to and defeat that opponent, and he wouldn't fix any fights. I think some of the earlier promoters before Mike Jacobs wanted my father to have to 'play the game', if you will, and sort of, lose this one to get that one, and get this shot in order to get in the other shot. They didn't want to have anything of it, I mean, basically my father came from an honest, religious family, where he didn't lie, he didn't cheat, and that was his whole, entire moral background. They didn't want to subject him to have to do that stuff, so the ground rules were, Joe fights whoever he wants, and Mike Jacobs said, Joe, you fight whoever you want, whoever we put in that ring, and you can end it whenever you want, you don't have to take it any further, and you'll never fix a fight. Those were the ground rules that were established, that's how Joe Louis fought, and that's how my father conducted his boxing career for all those years.
Now, again, there was, I think there was a moment, and I'm pretty sure I read this one in your book, where, where Mike gets together with Roxborough and he says, You guys are colored, and I'm a Jew, it's gonna be a rough, it's gonna be a rough go but I think we can do it.
[coughs] This was sort of an, a very different alliance. You had two, as far as the management team and the promotion team for my dad. You had two blacks as managers, you had a black trainer, which is not, not totally unusual, but then all of a sudden you had a Jew as a promoter, and so this is sort of an alliance going up against the white, anglo-saxon Protestant establishment, and they had a tough road to go. But Mike Jacobs was a tenacious guy, he was tough, he was a hustler, he was aggressive, and he knew he had the talent. Between the four of them they put together the team that was necessary to get my dad the shots at the title.
Was it unusual to have an all-black management team at that time, and how did the white, again, the white establishment view that? Did they need Mike Jacobs because of that, or...?
I think there was, I think it was probably clear that it was unique to have an all-black group, but the realities are, there weren't that many black fighters, certainly no black heavyweights, fighting for the championship. Joe Louis as a black fighter couldn't turn to whites, because whites didn't want a black champion. Remember, it's the '30s. Remember, whites didn't want blacks fighting, and they certainly didn't want them fighting for the heavyweight crown. So, my father had to turn to where he could turn, and that was to black people, who said, We want a hero, we're gonna make this man someone. He has the talent, he has the ability, he has the drive. So, I can't even conceive of a white person being, taking a risk on Joe Louis, because a white person wouldn't want to buck the establishment, and bring on a black fighter to challenge that establishment as a contender, and then eventually as a champion. No, it needed black people's support and a black man in that conquest, and that's what Roxy put together with Julian Black and Jack Blackburn.
So when Jacobs got him the shot at New York, so Joe was coming to New York, how did, was there a difference in the reaction between the white press and black press, between white citizens and black folks, and...
My father really was a strong contender, and defeating everyone in the Midwest, but Mike Jacobs knew that if Joe Louis was gonna start his steps towards the heavyweight championship, he had to be in New York, that's where boxing was, Madison Square Gardens. So the major, and the first big fight that my father had was the Primo Carnera fight, in 1935, and that as in New York City, and Jacobs arranged that. And here was Primo Carnera, this huge, huge, tall person, of Italian descent, against this black American. That was an important fight, because it put Joe Louis on the map, the white press all of a sudden got a look at him. Previously, what Jacobs had done to even get Joe Louis recognized, is he literally took a train load, a train-load of white reporters from New York out into Chicago to see my father fight. Only after that was Jacobs able to convince, through the white press, that this was a real contender, and that's how he eventually led to the Primo Carnera fight.
Were they, was there—
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] .
OK, let's cut, let's cut.
So, in terms of...
I mean, I think you can almost really see that, when Joe started his professional career, there was a lot of cynicism. Nobody wanted him to crack that racial barrier, particularly the white press, and a lot of white America. You can kind of see his acceptance trends into, after the title and into the '38 fight, but when he first started, the white press didn't necessarily want to give him the accolades that he needed. 'The Dark Destroyer', and the 'Jungle' this, and the 'something that', and the 'Brown Bomber', of course, the one that stuck. Joe Louis wasn't accepted, but they had to accept him because he was the most bright light. What they really didn't count on, and I think what the press really sort of missed, was the fact that Joe Louis came along in the post-Depression '30s and'40s. America needed a hero. America wanted its emotional integrity, its ego, lifted, and Joe Louis provided it. Whether you're black, white, rich, or poor, America was just coming out of a deep, dark Depression, and the irony is that here's a black man who just lifted the spirits of this country, in such a way that everybody could get behind Joe Louis. I don't think the white press understood that, they didn't understand that we needed a hero in this country, that we were just struggling back, and someone, and that's why sort of,
when Joe Louis fought, everybody listened around that radio. Whites, black, rich, poor, north, south, east, or west, it was a cultural phenomena [sic]
** in this country and, for that matter, in the world, when Joe Louis fought, because everyone embraced that radio. I like to say that more people saw my father through that radio, and imagined what they could be, then if they'd seen him in person. More people saw my father through that radio, because people around the world, and in this country, could use their imagination and dream, and Joe Louis created dreams in peoples' minds each time he won and defeated his opponent in the way he did. Clearly for black America, he allowed them to feel rich about themselves, and for the white Americans, trying to struggle with the American ego, this was a man who, particularly when you get into the '36 and '38 Schmeling fights, held up the pride and dignity of this country against the Aryan race, against Hitler and nazism and fascism. Now, Joe Louis represented democracy, he represented freedoms, he represented dreams. My father was very special in that regard.
Do you think there was an irony to that, insofar as that, for, at a certain point, all America, he represented dreams, he represented America and democracy, as you say, yet, he was special, because other black people didn't enjoy that [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
Well, Joe Louis wasn't special in the sense that, yes, he represented freedom and democracies, and that came very clear and was very vivid in the '38 Schmeling fight. I mean, I remember talking to my dad, and he was describing to me what his most important fight was, and his most important fight, frankly, was not the '38 Schmeling fight, it was the '36 Schmeling fight, because that's the one he lost. That's the one that he took for granted, that's the one that he started reading the press and believing that he was invincible. The realities are, that you can't be arrogant that way, not in anything, in your life, in business, in a sporting encounter, et cetera. So, that really taught Joe Louis that you really can't take anything for granted, and what he had been questing for, he almost lost, because he didn't think somebody eight years his senior, Max Schmeling, could defeat him. Well, when he beat Jimmy Braddock a year later and was the heavyweight championship of the world, black people celebrated. They celebrated for a month, but Joe Louis didn't think he was the heavyweight champion. My father didn't think he would ever have been the heavyweight champion of the world, had he not had another shot at Max Schmeling. Then, Hitler was making moves in Europe. All of a sudden this one boxing contest became a world event, 'cause on the one hand you had Hitler and Nazi Germany, on the other hand you had Joe Louis representing freedom and democracy, a freedom and democracy which he couldn't live, a freedom and democracy which he couldn't experience, and as a black American, yes, he was the heavyweight champion of the world, but he still couldn't go to certain hotels, he still couldn't ride in certain places, he still couldn't eat in certain places. It was segregated, there was bigotry, and later in life, I think my father forced America to deal with that conscience. But the realities are, not until Joe Louis defeat Max Schmeling in 1938, did he really start transcending to be a true, broad American hero. That's when people throughout this country said, Joe Louis defeated the enemy, and the enemy was the emerging Nazi Germany, and even though Max Schmeling was not a Nazi, everyone considered a German to be a Nazi. So, the overtones of that '38 fight were phenomenal. Max Schmeling experienced things that he'd never experienced before, pickets, people telling him he was bad, that he represented something that was evil. And yet
Joe Louis had to defend the freedom of democracy, and he held up that flag. To him, he wanted to defeat him because he lost in '36, but to America and the world, they had to send a signal to Adolf Hitler, and Joe Louis did.
Great. What about the Carnera fight-
We have to change reels.
OK. Chris, do you think, and I find [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ...
Just a second. OK.
Joe Louis, even though he was, you know, my father, even though he was heavyweight champion of the world and everybody put him on this pedestal, the realities are, he was a black man, and America, conscious...
Start from the beginning. It's OK.
even though my father was heavyweight champion of the world, he was still a black man, and America reminded him
** that he was a black man constantly.
** My father, even though sometimes they wanted to open the doors for him, he always felt very strongly that if his black brothers and sisters couldn't walk through those same doors the next day, then he wouldn't do it.
** So he wouldn't stay in hotels when he traveled on the road, where black people couldn't stay, even though the white establishment might have wanted him too. Then there were stories about, when he had to, because it was the only hotel in town, they would segregate him, they put his whole entourage on the top floor, create their own restaurant up there so that they wouldn't go down and use the restaurant in the hotel. My father didn't like the prejudice, I mean, he understood it, and he understood he had to battle it. One of the most unfortunate stories was when he was in the Army, and my father conducted some ninety-six exhibitions, entertained some three million troops, so he was headed back to Fort Riley, Kansas, and he was in Oklahoma having done an exhibition, and all of a sudden they held up the plane for him, and this white businessmen said, Why are we holding up the plane? Well, there's someone coming, and we're waiting for this black soldier. And he said, Well, what nigger are we waiting up, waiting for? And just as he said that, Joe Louis is walking in the plane, and he looks up and sees that the nigger that he's calling and waiting for is Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion of the world, in his uniform, having entertained troops yet once again. Well, he stuck out his hand to apologize to my father, and my father just sort of fluffed it off and went on and sat down, but he had to endure many of the same indignities that other blacks did, regardless of the fact that he was heavyweight champion of the world.
Thanks. I know that story. The Italian-Ethiopian situation, and the Primo Carnera fight. Was there a relationship there, was there a significance for the black population?
The Primo Carnera fight, I think, was, was sort of a lot of 'press stuff'. He was Italian and my father was black, Mussolini and Ethiopia, and there was a lot to be made of what was going on outside of our borders, but the realities are, that my father didn't focus on that. I mean, more people, other people focused on it more than my dad. My dad just wanted to have a good showing, 'cause it was his first, first major fight in New York City, which was the stronghold of boxing. I think more was played, you know, made of that in the press than actually the realities are. Even though my father was aware of it, it didn't matter to him.
What about in the community? What about, [coughs] what about, say, in Harlem, or in the community, did it mean something to them?
Well, there's no question, every time Joe Louis fought, it was important to black America, it was important in the community, because Joe Louis was the only way that blacks in this country could compete on equal grounds. It was the only time that blacks in this country, given a square, square opportunity, even playing field, could beat up on whites and not go to jail. So, when Joe Louis won, it was a marvelous, marvelous feat, because it told every black American who was enduring the prejudice, enduring the segregation, that hey, if you give us a chance and let us compete, we can win. It's just, the only reason you're not letting us win is because you're suppressing us, and repressing our abilities to be able to compete. So he instilled great deals of pride whenever he fought and whenever he won, because Americans, black Americans said, I can do it now, I can make it, I can be somebody. There's a story once, when I was on a radio talk show, and we'd been talking about what happened in black America when my father won, and literally, people would bang the pots and pans. So, it was a radio call-in show, and this caller calls in, and says, I used to bang the pots and pans. I said, well, how did you feel, how did you react? He said, Let me explain it to you this way. I grew up in the ghettos of Pittsburgh, and I was slated to work in the steel mills. That's all that we could do, that's all that was expected of us. But yet, today, I'm a college dean, and I'm a college dean because your father gave me the sense of self-worth and respect, that I could do more than was expected of me. That's what Joe Louis meant to me. I've been listening to you talk about your dad for a half an hour, and I've had tears in my eyes, remembering what Joe Louis meant to all of us as we grew up in the ghettos of Pittsburgh. He made the difference in our lives, not a difference in our lives. And when I heard that story I was just, humbled, I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what, to react, that here was a man who literally instilled enough confidence and self-worth to this poor black kid in ghettos Pittsburgh, that he started his own journey, his own journey to accomplish something that was unexpected. And I was very proud of that.
Didn't you also tell me once about, that, in fact, it wasn't, it wasn't, not only true, there was a special place he had for, for black people, but also white people too. You told me...
Yeah. Well, and there was a, there was another opportunity when I learned, and we had been talking about my dad's impact throughout the world. Another radio call-in show, this voice comes on, very European voice, he says, I'm Polish, my name is Walter. And when I survived those concentration camps for four years, I did so because I knew the Germans were not invincible, that somebody would beat them, because Joe Louis had already defeated Max Schmeling. I survived the Holocaust because I knew that the Germans could not win, because your dad defeated Max Schmeling. Well, who can believe that somebody, surviving the Holocaust in a concentration camp, had the memory of Joe Louis, and that kept him going. That's a phenomenal amount of power. A person who only learned of Joe Louis through the radios, learned of Joe Louis through the talking and the writings, and learned of Joe Louis because he defeated Hitler's favorite champion Max Schmeling. That's, that's a phenomenal kind of power and influence, that Joe Louis didn't want, didn't seek, but he had, because of the times, because of the times that people needed a hero to revere, to think about, to want. Joe Louis provided that void across the world, which is so phenomenal. At the same time, even in white America, he challenged America to deal with its conscience. You can't call me heavyweight champion of the world, you can't call me special, but yet all of a sudden relegate me, like, and all of my brothers, to an inferior life. One time this, this white man came up to me after I talked at a, at a Rotary club, and he said, Joe, I've known you for five years, but I've never told you this story. Your father was a unifying force for us in a poor, segregated town in Texas. He said, Our town was so poor, we only had one radio, and it was the first time that blacks and whites got together, because we all wanted to listen to the Joe Louis fights. We all got around, and huddled around the radio. The whites were on the inside and the blacks were on the outside, but other than work in the fields, we never saw blacks, he said. And the next day, something happened that was even more of a phenomena [sic]. Us white boys wanted to replicate the fight, and for the first time in our lives, we wanted to be a black man, we wanted to be Joe Louis, because we didn't want to play the loser, because who wanted to be a loser? And that was contrary to what our parents were telling us. Our parents were telling us that blacks were inferior, that blacks weren't important, that blacks were insignificant, but yet for all the kids on that playground in that white school in this poor segregated town in Texas, we wanted to be a black man, 'cause the black man was our hero. And all of a sudden we're saying, What are you trying to tell us, white America? What are you trying to tell us, parents? That blacks aren't good? When the heavyweight champion of the world, the most powerful individual, the most revered individual, somebody that we emulate, is a black man? Joe Louis challenged the conscience of America in many, many ways throughout this country.
Oh, good. Great. OK, cut.
I mean, one of the things that you have to remember about Joe Louis, is how he impacted a lot of people in very different ways, some very seriously, and some in humorous ways, and John Thompson, coach at Georgetown University, told me once that his parents lived in the southwest side of Washington, D.C., in the basement of this row-house. The white folks who owned the house upstairs invited them to listen to a Joe Louis fight, and they went up, and of course, in the fifth or sixth round, all of a sudden Joe Louis defeats this white man. The white owner of the house was so incensed that he turned off the radio, so that they couldn't hear the play by play and the ring announcers talking about how Joe Louis yet defeated another opponent. So, John's parents were very, very sensitive about that, and they went downstairs and very quietly said thank you for letting us listen to the, to the fight. Once they got downstairs and closed the door, they just yelled and hooped and hollered, and they hooped and hollered because they were proud of Joe Louis's victory, they wanted to take pride in that, but yet they couldn't express that pride in front of whites, that's a tragedy in this country. Because, whites still said that, This is a black man, he shouldn't be where he is, he shouldn't be allowed to beat up on whites, that's our domain, that's our province. And, you know, you hear story after story, how blacks in the South would never say anything, would never do anything in front of whites when Joe Louis fought, but those kids had some awful big chests the next day, they walked around with a level of pride you can see just bursting from their chest and busting those buttons, because yet, you know, Joe Louis defeated another person.
Great, [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ?
Yeah, we're just about out.
OK. We'll have to change camera rolls.
You all right with this plane?
OK. So what about the...
I mean, the unique thing about athletes that transcends periods of time, is how politicians love them.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt loved my dad, and I remember once the story of him calling him to White House, and he was calling him to the White House to basically feel his muscles and the power of Joe Louis, and with those muscles we could defeat the Germans.
** But what most people don't realize is that when he called my dad to the White House, the Japanese ambassador had been waiting to see Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and they kept the Japanese ambassador waiting while Joe Louis was escorted to see the President, and then back out. The Japanese didn't understand who this black man was, who was being escorted to see the President before them, and one of the ambassadors knew and told his associates, That's Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion of the world. There was sort of a deference there, there was a sort of understanding. Joe Louis was loved by everyone, Presidents to, anyone, and that's just Joe Louis, and I think that's because of who he was. I think my dad was embraced by everyone in this country because he held the title with dignity and grace, he didn't brag, he was warm, he was humble, and let's face it, he was America. He came from nowhere and went to somewhere. He came from the poorest environments, where, my mother used to tell me that my father used to have raggedy jeans on when he was growing up, and he was embarassed. But once he got to the pinnacle, once he reached the height of his career, he never forgot, ever forgot, where he came from. He always shared with people, he was very generous with people, to a fault. If you would walk, and see Joe Louis on the street and ask him for ten dollars, he would give you twenty dollars. He basically said, one of the most important events in his life was when his sister Eunice graduated from Howard University, because he knew the importance of an education, he paid for her education. It wasn't the Schmeling fight, it wasn't seeing FDR, it wasn't the Billy Conn fight, it wasn't the championship, it was when his sister Eunice graduated from Howard University. Joe Louis was a sensitive man, a warm man, and that's why, I think, America loved him so much, because he wasn't just another brash fighter, he was someone you could embrace. He had the qualities of a man, the qualities of a human being, that everyone can embrace. I mean, once, it was once said that Joe Louis, all of his life, represented his race. The human race. And that's what it was about. I've seen people throughout the years who knew my father in the '30s, or the'40s, or the and 50's, and no one wants to consider themselves Joe Louis's acquaintance, everyone wants to be Joe Louis's friend. He made you feel like you were his friend, because he embraced you, because you had access to him, and once you got to touch Joe Louis's hand, or stand and talk to him, you immediately felt that radiating warmth, and I think those are some of the qualities that allowed America to love him, as they do.
Great, thanks. Cut for a minute.
When you talk about my father's, sort of, impact throughout black America, I don't think there's any place that symbolizes his impact better than Harlem, on the night that Joe Louis won. Literally thousands upon thousands of people would hover around the Hotel Theresa, at 125th street. They literally would wait, in the street, surrounding the corner, until Joe Louis would come out and wave at them, and then they would go and parade all throughout Harlem, celebrating yet a Joe Louis victory. I mean, no one since then has given black Americans, and for that matter, Americans, that sense of pride, that they could, they could enjoy themselves, they could feel good about themselves, they could feel, feel, just, energetic, and that's what's so exciting about Joe Louis. In the '30s he was just, that's what he did, once he had that title, and once he continued to defeat, every time he won, he just put a little bit more courage in people's minds. He allowed black Americans to feel that much more confident that they could do something, if indeed they were given the chance.
What about when he lost? How did they, how did Harlem react when he lost?
Joe Louis didn't lose many fights, and when my father did lose in 1936, people were devastated, because he was not yet the champion, he was still climbing that ladder, and my father felt devastated. He felt that he let everybody down, because my father didn't expect to lose, he didn't have to lose, he lost because he took that fight for granted, and because of that, he thought that he let everybody down. I remember him distinctly telling me how he felt, and we were, you could almost see the demeanor, his demeanor change, and all of a sudden this veiled cloud go in front of him, that he really felt, not depressed, just as much as disappointed in what he had done. But that didn't last for long, because Joe Louis fought back, and that's the sort of qualities that my father and my family had, that we wouldn't give up. So, my father was devastated by that defeat, but he wasn't absolutely destroyed by that, and that was the difference. I think that's the story of Joe Louis, in the sense that he was able to take the defeat, he didn't allow it to destroy him, and he got back on track, and his trainers got him back into, into play very quickly.
Cut for a sec?
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
Well, I think some of the, my dad touched a lot of people, and although boxing seems today like it's a man's sport, and a lot of men surround themselves and are enthusiastic, when my father fought in the '30s, there was no question that Joe Louis touched everybody. Men, women, boys and girls, all huddled around the radio listening to the Joe Louis fights. Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's wife, told me once that Joe Louis was as important to her in her formulation [sic] as a woman and a black woman as any human being, and that he was that significant to her as a young black woman trying to get her identity when she was growing up in a segregated, a bigoted United States. That's what Joe Louis meant to, not only people like Rachel, but men and women, boys and girls throughout the entire '30s and'40s.
Tell me, then, the story about the woman who came up to you on the street...
I was, I was talking about my dad once, and we were talking about the impact Joe Louis had throughout the world, and again, after the talk, this European, white woman came up to me, and she said, You know, I was a, I was a German, I was a Jew in Germany, and I wanted you to know that every Jew in Germany was rooting for Joe Louis on that night in June, in 1938, that Jews wanted Joe Louis to defeat Max Schmeling. We knew how important it was for Joe Louis to beat Max Schmeling, we knew how significant it was for him to win, and for Max to be defeated. No, you need to understand that your father touched us, and you need to understand that we were rooting for him, even though we were Germans, we were rooting for your dad.
Great. OK, cut.