Camera Rolls: 317:35-38
Sound Rolls: 317:19-23
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Shirley Povich , 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.*
Ready? OK, my first question is, in the early '30s before Joe Louis, before he came around, what kind of press coverage did they have for, was there for black athletes?
Well actually not much. Before Joe Louis you have to understand that the imminent black outside of Jesse Owens, he was to come along, was Harry Wills, the great heavyweight-contending black, and the matter of a record that both Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney refused to fight a black. Actually, it wasn't their preference. They were willing to fight Harry Wills, but Promoter Tex Rickard, with his background in race relations, was simply scared of what might develop with black versus white for the heavyweight title, and heaven forgive the black man win. So Harry Wills and other blacks were, were excluded. The blacks, as you know, were excluded in baseball, they were simply shoved aside and put aside, and if you speak of coverage of the blacks, there virtually wasn't any until Jesse Owens I think first came along, came along behind Louis. Jesse Owens and Joe Louis gave America an awareness, a new awareness of blacks as athletes.
Great, thank you. What was it about, you know, before Har-, even before Harry Wills was of course Jack Johnson, what was it about Jack Johnson that made the heavyweight, the boxing establishment say "never again" to a black champion?
I'm not so sure that the American people said "never again" following the scandals of Jack Johnson, who presented the worst kind of image for the blacks with, what his white slavery conditions and his arrogance, all against a background in the years when there was a division of the races, a great division of the races. And as you know, when he knocked out Jim Jeffries in 1910 in Reno, there were riots all over the country, and blacks were lynched, and some whites were killed, you shouldn't joke about this. But this stigmatized the blacks as championship contenders, it wasn't going to happen. May I say that, that aside from Johnson, blacks really had no great future as fighters because all champions were white and promoters weren't eager to give the black men a chance to fight for the title, and they were reduced to fighting in what they call the undercard, the semi-finals, and even less. And I remember speaking to one promoter [laughs] in Washington, Goldie Ahearn, and he says, "Good-looking, black fighter," and I says, "Two, had a great semi-final fight between two blacks, and rather it wasn't a great fight, it was a dull fight." And I say, "It was a lousy fight," and he says, "Yes, you know," he says, "they have no incentive for fighting," he says, "They know they'll never get a main bout, and so they go in there and they fight a very listless fight, the idea of not getting hurt." I asked him, "Well, how do they manage this? They don't know each other, they haven't met each other. How can they say we're going to take it easy in here?" And he says, "Well, blacks having no future in prize fighting," he says, "they talk with their eyes." And I, [laughs] I have this memory of blacks being doomed to so called preliminaries and undercards.
Great, so what was it about Joe Louis that changed all that?
Well, let us consider, we probably could say of Joe Louis that he came along—probably without realizing—advancing the cause of race relations, as I say without knowing it, because Joe Louis was accepted as what they would call in those times, The Good Negro. Joe was likable, he was let's say illiterate, he couldn't hardly write a name and he read not at all, but there was no sense of misbehaving, and he was modest, and he was knocking out all these other people, and he bragged not at all, and boasted not at all, a big contrast with the arrogance of Mike Tyson [sic]. And so Joe Louis got an acceptance, I do believe, that no other black athlete ever got. And in his own way, I say, he advanced the cause of race relations probably in a greater degree than anybody before Martin Luther King came along. And I think that this acceptance of Joe Louis by the American people was a watershed, or a landmark, or whatever you want to call it.
Did the American people accept him at first, or was he first just, did it take the American people awhile to accept him, white people, did it take them awhile to accept them?
In the Joe Louis case it seems that he was accepted quite quickly because of his nice, young-fellow presence. He knocked out other fighters and he boasted not at all, and even when, for example, he had to go into the service, what reflected Joe Louis was his comment about war, who would win the war, and that's when he said, "We win, God's on our side," and these kinds of little comments endeared himself to the American people.
How did you first hear of him? I mean, he was out in the Midwest somewhere, how did you first hear of Joe Louis?
Well, he was out there in Detroit fighting preliminaries and winning some amateur fights, which didn't put him to the forefront at all, but when he turned pro, went to John Roxborough, and he started knocking out everybody he met, then there was a, an awareness. It was almost immediate and unlike the fighters of the modern times who fought once, twice, three times a year, Joe Louis fought five, six, seven times a month, you couldn't keep him out of the public. And with his progression undefeated as he was, he, as I say, became a presence on the scene, and then he began to fight the better fighters, Primo Carnera, Max Baer, and all those who were outstanding, and Max Schmeling at a later date, and to his great misfortune in the first fight when-
We'll get on to that fight when we-
This was, the awareness of Joe Louis was as simple a progression of interest in what this young, black man was doing.
Great, how did the black, how did the boxing establishment—the boxing establishment—react to the fact that he had an all black management team? Was that unusual at that time, that you know, Roxborough, and Blackburn, and Julian Black, they were all black? Was that unusual, and how did, how did the press and the boxing establishment react to that?
The fact that Joe Louis had an all black coterie, or company, or what you wanna call it, manager, trainer, fighter, all black, seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the American people, the American press. And may I say too that perhaps the American press was a little more in advance of the American people in the acceptance of Joe Louis, and well just broadly in race relation affairs. No, the fact that he, no white man was involved with Joe Louis was of no importance in the boxing scene.
OK, can you cut for a second?
Can you tell me about the first time you saw Joe Louis fight, and which fight it was, and whether he impressed you or how he impressed you?
I'm not certain which fight it was, but I know what my impressions were of Joe Louis. Joe Louis, to begin with, was I think the calmest fighter I ever saw. He didn't come raging out his corner, and walk across the ring, and begin somersault. He simply walked out to mid-ring, and stalked you for a little bit, and holding that left hand high, and beginning with a little jab, and the next thing that you had to wait for was that right cross that knocked everybody out. You had to see Joe Louis' strength. I talked to one of his sparring partners, whose name I believe was Jack McCarthy. Jack McCarthy was almost as big as Louis and Jack McCarthy says, "He's the strongest man I've ever known." And he says, "I've been sparring partners with so many heavyweights and Joe Louis would have his arms extended under my armpits and lift me off the floor with his own arms extended. That is how strong he was." And everybody knows this question: Was he the hardest hitter in the history of boxing?
I'm sorry we just ran out, we just ran out of film.
OK, do you want to explain that to me [inaudible]-
In Joe Louis' time, unlike modern days when they don't identify fighters as black, or Negro, or whatever they want to call them, in Joe Louis' day there was no inhibitions about this. Press could simply call him "The Dark Destroyer," they would say, "Joe Louis, The Negro," and there was never any qualms about this because this got acceptance in those times, it was so different. And the black fighters themselves had no great resentment about this, there was no insistence that we not be called Negro, we like to be called blacks or Afro-Americans. In the 1930s Negroes as such were Negroes, and I recall an experience in my own office at where I was going in to see our managing editor, and just as a black delegation from some group was exiting his office after having visited him, and I talked to him and he said, "I've just had this delegation in here to see me," and he says, "they came here with the request that when we use the word Negro, we capitalize it. A capital "N" if pleases, we would be pleased by it." And he says, "Well of course I agreed to that," and then he aped Neville Chamberlain by saying, "And we had peace in our time," [sic] [laughs] simply by agreeing to capitalize the word, capital "N" in use of the word Negro. These were the different times. Now, happily, nobody identifies Tyson or Hollyfield as black, they're accepted as people, as fighters.
I read something in the Chris Mead book where you said something about, even in the news department [coughs] they would inquire, well was this murder a black, was it Negroes or was it whites-
Oh, I think Chris Mead was quoting my interview with him in which this happened to be a true story, and these were the days of the 1920s when I was a police reporter for , and Washington was a city with a considerable number of blacks, but identified mostly as a Southern town in the '20s. And I would be out on a stabbing, or a murder, or a killing, and calling in the office and the first thing the assistant [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] would ask me would be "white or nigger." And if I said "nigger" they says "forget it," it wasn't worth printing. These were those times and this tell you how far along the press has come.
Great, can we cut for a second?
OK, so, when—
When we talk about the prejudices, and it was wondered whether, when Max Baer fought Joe Louis or Joe Louis fought Max Baer, there was anything made of the fact that Joe Louis was black, and Max Baer was Jewish, and was there any conflict here, was there any bitterness whatsoever? I could've said, I would say certainly no. This was never brought into play because the first place, Max Baer was half-Jewish and unobservant, and became Jewish when his manager suggested he wear the Star of David on his trunks. This was the only identification that he had with the Jewish people. However in the case of Joe Louis when he fought Max Schmeling, this was entirely different because we know Hitler had come on the scene, first rumble of the Nazi Holocaust, and the horrors of the new German state, and here comes Max Schmeling to fight Joe Louis. Let us remember this was not for the title because the title was in, held by Jim Braddock. So, the managers of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling didn't do anything to deter this bitterness between Germans and blacks, Germans and Americans, and Nazi factor. In fact I think they helped promote it. But I do recall that Max Schmeling coming over here, his manager denied that he was a Nazi, a Nazi soldier. And this little information was exploded by a friend of mine, a German fight promoter who had fled Hitler, and I asked him about Schmeling, was he a Nazi, and he said to me in very graphic terms, "He's got forty-four hobnails in his boots just like every other Nazi soldier." So this established, I think in my mind at least, the fact that this was Nazi German versus black.
Was it, excuse me for a second, was it—no keep going—was it Nazi Germany versus black or Nazi Germany versus America? Was there much made about the fact that it was a black man?
Well, oh yes, I should amend that. I should say yes, this is Nazi Germany versus America, yes. The American people versus Nazi Hitler regime.
How was Joe seen as a representative of America?
Much was made with the fact that Joe resented Schmeling, but I think that I and virtually all others who knew Joe said that, would say it didn't really make much difference to Joe, he wasn't aware of all that was being done in Germany by the Nazis, and-
But that's Joe, but what about the press and the American public, did they make much about—
—a black man and the—
The press and the American public pumped up the fight. Now in those days the press always figured in, in what we call hyping fights. There were a lot of sports writers in search of a lot of topics all the time, and they would relish the idea that here was a Nazi soldier versus an American black, and they did nothing to diminish this factor. And, however, the overwhelming interest was Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, and you know what happened that night.
Right, great. Can you tell me about the, the—and watch out for the scratching again—can you tell me about your reaction and the reaction of people to that fight?
The reaction of the people as a result of that fight, in which Max Schmeling knocked out Joe Louis in the twelfth round, the only man—Joe Louis had been on the floor before. If there was a criticism of Joe Louis it could have been his chin. Few people had him on the floor, but Max Schmeling is the only one who ever kept him down. And this was probably the most surprising fight in all boxing history, the fact that Joe Louis could get hit with Schmeling's right hand. I remember talking after the fight to people in his corner, and after the first round when Joe Louis looked like the Joe Louis who could take Schmeling out at any point, Schmeling came back to his corner to tell his trainer, Max Machon, in the German idiom, "He is strong, he is very strong." Schmeling's trainer, Machon, says, "You are strong too. You can hit him too." And beginning in the third round, Schmeling, a darn good boxer, began connecting with right hands and Joe's chin was a little vulnerable, and down he went. The upshot was that he went down three times, he was a thoroughly beaten fighter. And two things were apparent: Schmeling was underrated, Schmeling was unafraid, the second thing, and the third thing is that Joe Louis was meeting somebody who stood up to him, and this was an off night. And no great disgrace because Jack Dempsey was beaten, Gene Tunney lost. The only fighter who ever went undefeated was Rocky Marciano, very underrated.
What about, going back a fight, or a prominent fight—
We have about like twenty feet left.
OK, then we should stop.
What I was going to ask was about the Primo Carnera fight—
Why don't we go back to the other Schmeling fight?
OK, so what about the revenge fight?
Well, you know, there had to be a rematch after what Schmeling did to Joe Louis. It took a couple of years, you know, in the meantime Jimmy Braddock wins the title. And now Bradd—Joe Louis with his knockout of Braddock, and Joe Louis had to recover from a first down, first round knockdown, reinforcing to suspicions that he sometimes had a bad chin, but he overcame it. So now they rematch, Schmeling and Louis, Louis is the champion, but the spectre of Schmeling, knockout winner over Louis, is always there. And Joe Louis is never at peace with himself until he beat Schmeling. American people were, American black people, were unhappy, weren't completely happy with Louis' champion until he could get in the ring with Schmeling again. Well, of course this happened. They rematched, and it was so entirely different. I think there were two factors there:
Joe Louis wasn't going to bother to box this guy,
** who was a pretty good boxer himself. And I question how much enthusiasm Schmeling himself had for this fight. Because as we know Joe Louis simply walked over across the ring into Max Schmeling's corner, belted him time and again, and knocked him down, and bloodied him, and devastated him. And if Schmeling could get up, it was apparent he didn't want to get up. And so Joe Louis took the short course in regain-, in getting his revenge against Schmeling. No fooling around, I'm stronger than he is, I punch better than he is, and this wastes no time.
** And this I think had a great effect, this regained for Joe Louis even more popularity than he had previous to the Schmeling debacle. American people had a new great champion, blacks had the faith that Louis was a hero restored. What were the limits of Joe Louis, who could say?
Great, great, thank you. Cut for a second.
OK, so let's talk about the Carnera—
—thing as being a turning point—
You know probably the turning point in Joe Louis' career—
Hang on a second, can you start again because you were moving.
Yeah, probably the turning point in Joe Louis' career was when he came to New York for the Primo Carnera fight. After all it must be realized that Joe hadn't been looking at anybody in particular importance at this point. Joe was known as a puncher, and a winner of everything he ever fought, but who did he ever lick? Now here comes Carnera on the scene, and Carnera, you know, came out of a circus sideshow in Italy, but he was big, and he could move, and he could punch, and unfortunately he had this lantern jaw, but he had been beating American fighters, and he was certainly recognized as a test for Joe Louis. After all, he outweighed Louis by sixty pounds, and it couldn't be said that Carnera couldn't fight, he could fight. And so there they were, this will tell you is Joe Louis for real, or is Carnera for real. Well, you could say that both statements were true. Carnera could fight, Joe Louis could fight better. And the first thing that he did was to attack this great, big frame of Carnera, who you could describe as bringing a big strike-zone into the ring with him,[laughs] and this was a great invitation to Joe. And the next thing you know Joe was firing everything he had, lefts and rights—left hook particularly for some reason that night he was using—and he had this big body and that brought the head down, the head down here comes the left hook. Three times Carnera's down. Joe Louis disposed of Carnera on the American seat. Joe Louis had proved, I can beat this big guy, who might have been the best of all the challengers [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] at that point.
I think was probably as much the making of Joe, so dramatic, so many knockdowns about this big guy who incidentally could hit, and Joe had to take a few. But at the finish
** it was Carnera going down for the last time, his head sliding face forward on the floor like a Roger's man-servant in obeyance. End of Carnera, and this is Joe Louis in our midst.
Great, great, thank you. Cut.
[ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] Take eight.
OK so, tell me again about, you know, what Jimmy Cannon said about him-?
Joe Louis' popularity was, was so wide and so great that you could almost applaud it with Jimmy Cannon, then, made the defining line about Joe Louis when he said, "Joe Louis is a credit to his race, the human race." Now this is better understood and more respected when you understand that Jimmy Cannon was no great hero worshipper, and he was a cynic, and he was the same person who described boxing as, quote "the red-light district of sports," unquote, so he didn't suffer villains gladly, he liked Joe Louis.
Great, thank you. All right let's cut.
Now when we think in terms of Joe Louis' popularity, not only among blacks, but among Americans in general, and the esteem in which he was held, perhaps it's better served to quote the line of Jimmy Cannon, the sports writer and a fine one for . And let us understand first that Jimmy Cannon was no great hero worshipper, in fact Jimmy Cannon was a cynic who once wrote the remembered line about boxing, in which he called "boxing, the red-light district of sports." This is the same chap who could and did say of Joe Louis, "He's a credit to his race, the human race," and that I think was the most defining of all statements.
Great, thank you. Cut.
OK, so how did the times-
Well, you know, the '30s were simply different. America had gone through its own, going through its own depression as well, and times were bad for everybody, and particularly I'm sure, bad for the blacks. And there was no progress for blacks, it was still reduced to the menial trades. The boot blacks, every boot black you saw was a black, and they worked only in the service trades, and the Depression was a burden particularly for them. But the prejudices were alive as well, and maybe even more so, and there was anti-Semitism in the air all of this time. Hitler didn't invent it, it was there even if below the surface. The contrast is that anti-black prejudices were on the surface, and none could escape them. But these were the times in which Joe Louis came along, and as I say, he was regarded as a nice, young, Negro boy who didn't pose any threat to anybody, he was not abrasive, he was not aggressive, and he won easy acceptance together with his fists. He don't win his fights, Joe Louis is just some black kid that belongs, who belongs in a low-paid job or whatever he happens to be. But I, I think the fact that he came along at this time—
—and the manner that he could present as the simple, black, honest kid helped to break down this long—
OK, we just ran out of, we just ran out of film. Can we—?
OK, so picking up again where you said, so here along comes this black kid and—
Well, as you know America was still enveloped in the effects of the Depression when Joe Louis came along, and after 1932 when President Roosevelt embarked on all these welfare programs—now I'm not sure that it reached the blacks and penetrated to the same degree it did the whites—so everybody was having a bad time and it was at this time when Joe Louis came along. A black fighter, Negro fighter, made all this progress beating all these guys, even threatening to be a champion, heaven forbid in the eyes of so many whites, yet he began to neutralize all of this anti-black feeling with his own deportment. He was regarded as a simple, honest, good Negro who could punch like hell and had given the people so much to admire in the terms of prizefighting. He was one, becoming one great prizefighter, and he got an acceptance that was relatively speedy in terms of race relations. And this, I think, was his great contribution to integration and the equality it carries, even if he was never aware or greatly motivated by the thought of it.
Great, thank you. Now, you talked a little bit before about anti-Semitism, what kinds of, how did anti-Semitism manifest itself at that time in America, not so much in Nazi Germany—
Well I'm not so sure I could be an authority on anti-Semitism—
Well, in you personally—
But I would, [coughs] I would suggest anti-Semitism was always there. It wasn't quite as obvious as anti-black prejudices, but it was there on a sub-surface all the time, and particularly among those rednecks who didn't like the blacks, that neither did they like the Jews, you know, and I'm sure that there were, the same could be said of a certain segment of middle America, WASPs, and I think that the, the Jewish people had this to combat all the time.
Do you have any personal stories of—
Well I should, perhaps I shouldn't talk, I couldn't talk authoritatively in a sense of my own experiences because growing up in a small town with only four Jewish families in Bar Harbor, Maine, there was no, there was no sense of anti-Semitism that we were aware of. We knew who we were at home, our parents told us who we were.
What about [phone rings] what about in the '30s?
We have to stop.
We have to stop, we had the phone ringing.
We, we'd talk about anti-Semitism in the 1930s, I'm probably a poor authority in the sense that I'm already sports editor of a large metropolitan newspaper, and here I am in the position in which—let's face it I'm not seeking anything from anybody, but a great many people seeking things from the sports editor with , whether they want publicity or favors of some kind so I'm on the receiving end—and the anti-Semitism there was so subliminal I couldn't say that there was a great deal. I wasn't on the other side of the fence trying to make progress and handicapped by what, the anti-Semitism that went on. But I do remember, I do remember Washington in the 1930s had a great breakthrough when Mary Anderson—whatever her name-
Why don't you start again. It's Marian Anderson that you had spoken with.
Marian, I do remember the great breakthrough in the 1930s when Marian Anderson, after being denied entry to the Daughters, DAR Hall, to perform, was finally invited there at the insistence of Eleanor Roosevelt, and delivered her great concert, which made everybody so very happy with the exception of those dedicated bigots, and this was a memorable event. I contrast it with an earlier event at the DAR Hall, Daughters of the American Revolution Hall, in the 1920s when I was covering police and we get a riot call, DAR, but it wasn't the DAR, it was the Daughters of the Confederacy meeting. There, and they were embroiled in some—
—heated discussion, and there seemed to be—