Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
The interconnecting paths of heavyweight champions Jack Johnson and Joe Louis
As told by Geoffrey Ward, author of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
“[Native Son author] Richard Wright paid tribute to his hero, Joe Louis, with the lyrics of a blues song, ‘King Joe.’ Count Basie wrote the music, and Paul Robeson, for the first time in his life, sang the blues. Wright was proud of their collaboration. Recorded by John Hammond on the Okeh label, ‘King Joe’ was for sale in mid-November (1941), released on two sides of a ten-inch 78 RPM record. The New York Times critic thought it ‘mighty good’ jazz. The New Masses declared it ‘swell to dance to.’ By mid-January, forty thousand records had been sold.”
– Hazel Rowley, from Richard Wright, The Life and Times.
Listen to Count Basie’s orchestra play King Joe (Part One), with vocalist Paul Robeson
(Complete 3:23 song. A high speed connection may take approximately one minute before song begins playing)
Johnson was back in Chicago in the summer of 1934, appearing in Dave Barry’s Garden of Champions, a sort of sideshow at the Century of Progress International Exposition organized by a veteran referee to compete with such attractions as the Midget Village, Sally Rand’s Balloon Dance, and the Aunt Jemima Cabin. For a dollar, children could throw punches at Jack Johnson while he ducked and laughed and popped his eyes. One evening, he fought an exhibition there against Tom Sharkey, whose sparring partner he had briefly been back in 1901. It was supposed to be a nonviolent sparring session, but the old brawler was incapable of pretending. He rushed at Johnson, murder in his eyes. Nothing much had changed in thirty-three years. Sharkey still couldn’t hit him. Johnson tied him up, and winked at the audience. “What you aim to do to me, Tom?” he asked, grinning and pinioning Sharkey’s arms. “What you tryin’ to do?”
Johnson took off the evening of July 4. A twenty-year-old Negro named Joe Louis from Detroit was making his professional debut at Bacon’s Casino, and Johnson didn’t want to miss it. Even he now knew that his ring career was over. The novelty of seeing him onstage had long since worn off, and vaudeville was dying, in any case. None of his other moneymaking enterprises had paid off. He needed a meal ticket, and if this young Golden Gloves winner from Detroit was as good as people said he was, he might be just what Johnson had been looking for.
Born Joseph Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914, almost a year after Jack Johnson’s flight to Canada, Louis was an Alabama sharecropper’s son raised by his mother in a Detroit neighborhood called Black Bottom. His managers were two Negro real estate men: John Roxborough and Julian Black. Both were streetwise — Roxborough was also a successful numbers operator; Black ran a casino — but neither knew much about the fight game. For boxing expertise, they’d turned to a veteran Chicago-based trainer, Jack Blackburn.
Jack Johnson hated Blackburn. Blackburn, a wiry, hot-tempered, hard drinking man with a razor scar across one cheek, hated Johnson. Blackburn said it all began in early 1908 when Johnson had swaggered into a Philadelphia gym with several admiring women and called for someone to spar with him. Blackburn stepped forward, though he was only a lightweight, and, as he told it, managed to bewilder Johnson with his skill and speed, bloodying his nose and parrying everything the increasingly embarrassed heavyweight threw back at him. Johnson left the gym in a rage. The following year, Blackburn found himself behind bars for manslaughter — he had killed a former friend and wounded the man’s mistress in a street fight — and asked Johnson to come see him in jail and help raise money to mount a legal appeal. Johnson took pleasure in turning him down. “Let the son of a bitch stay in jail,” he said.
Blackburn was pardoned in 1914, but while he kept fighting and mostly winning for nine more years, he never managed to reestablish himself as a serious contender. As a trainer, he worked almost exclusively with white fighters and was reluctant at first to take on a Negro novice, even one as promising as Louis. Colored heavyweights were a dime a dozen, he said. Just as in Johnson’s day, there was nowhere for them to go. And, Blackburn believed, Johnson himself was to blame. He might have opened the door when he beat Tommy Burns, but the way he behaved once the title was his had slammed it shut again. Blackburn made that clear to Louis during one of their first meetings:
You know, boy, the heavyweight division for a Negro is hardly likely. The white man ain’t too keen on it. You have to be something to go anywhere. If you really ain’t gonna be another Jack Johnson, you got some hope. White man hasn’t forgotten that fool nigger with his white women, acting like he owned the world.
Blackburn carefully chose Louis’ first professional opponent, a sturdy white journeyman named Jack Kracken, whom Louis felled in less than two minutes. Afterward, Johnson was invited up into the ring to say a few words. The mostly black crowd expected to hear some encouragement for the newcomer from the sport’s black elder statesman. They didn’t get it. The young man might make a good fighter someday, Johnson said. But a big punch wasn’t enough. Louis needed better training: his stance was all wrong; he didn’t move his feet correctly. The crowd began to get restless. One or two began to boo. Johnson kept right on. He was used to hostile audiences, though until now they’d always been white. Above all, Louis needed a new trainer. Jack Blackburn would never do.
Johnson loathed Blackburn, but he couldn’t deny that the man’s protégé was impressive. In his first eleven months as a professional Louis thumped out twenty- two straight victories (with eighteen knockouts). In June of 1935, he reached the big time, a fight with the ex-heavyweight champion Primo Carnera at Yankee Stadium. He had earned $750 from his last fight; the Carnera bout promised more than $60,000. Jack Johnson, reduced for the moment to peddling “Old Champ L’il Arthur Gin — The Gin That’ll Make You Smile,” wanted a piece of the action. He drove up to Louis’ training camp at Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, and introduced himself to the newcomer.
“It was thrilling to meet Johnson,” Louis remembered. He’d heard stories about him since boyhood. “I liked him. He never mentioned the problems he was having He was an impressive-looking guy and a good talker. He told me I was going to run into every kind of situation possible, and warmed me to keep my head at all times.” After Johnson left, a newspaperman asked Louis what he thought about the way the older man had lived his life. “Every man’s got a right to his own mistakes,” Louis said. “Ain’t no man that ain’t made any.”
Johnson took to hanging out at the Renaissance Restaurant, Louis’ Harlem headquarters on Seventh Avenue, where, a writer for the Amsterdam News noted, he “imbibed with joy the looks of respect and wonder” the hangers-on gave him. He was back at the center of things and full of praise for Louis, who most experts predicted would lose. Carnera, a former circus strong man who stood six and a half feet tall and weighed 275 pounds, was simply too big. Johnson begged to differ. “Louis has the stuff,” he said. “He oughta win. I reckon he’ll win.”
Louis did win, knocking the oversized Carnera down three times. (“He went down slowly,” wrote John Kieran, in the New York Times the next day “like a great chimney that had been dynamited.”) Afterwards, Johnson elbowed his way into the victor’s dressing room, pounded him on the back, and shouted, “Boy, you’re the greatest fighter in the last twenty-five years!” Much of Harlem celebrated that night, its pleasure amplified by the triumph of a black man over an Italian just as fascist Italy was about to march into Ethiopia. And Johnson celebrated with it, leading the crowds in cheers for Joe Louis.
A day or two later, Johnson made his move. He called on John Roxborough with a business proposition. “I can make a champion out of that boy if you turn him over to me,” he said. Blackburn, of course, would have to go. Roxborough turned on him. “He cursed Johnson out,” Louis recalled, “told him how he had held up the progress of the Negro people for years with his attitude, how he was a low-down, no-good nigger and told him he wasn’t welcome in my camp anymore.”
Stung, Johnson took his case to the newspapers. Louis was just a “flash in the pan,” he said now. Even at fifty-seven he could beat him — and Carnera, too. The younger man read the story and couldn’t believe it. “I respected this man; he had come to my training camp and all. It really disappointed me.” A few weeks later, Johnson turned up again at Pompton Lakes, where Louis was getting ready to fight a second ex-champion, Max Baer. Louis spotted him in the bleachers and refused to enter the ring to spar until he left. “Get that black cat out of here,” he muttered to his handlers. “I don’t want him in my camp.” Johnson returned to his car and drove back to the city. A few weeks later, he turned up again. Life magazine wanted a photograph of Johnson and Louis together. This time, Julian Black ordered Johnson away; no such picture would be taken. From then on, Johnson would remain a relentless critic of the rising star.
As Joe Louis punched his way through the heavyweights, hoping to win a chance at the title, two Jack Johnsons haunted him. One was the real man — middle-aged, down on his luck, envious of anyone getting attention he insisted should be his, an irritant but not a real obstacle. The other was the grinning specter of the gaudy figure he once had been. That Jack Johnson threatened to bar him and all other Negro heavyweights from the championship.
The treatment Louis received from the white press was more respectful than that which Johnson had had to endure, but not by much. Cartoonists portrayed him as a stereotypical “darkie,” precisely as they had Johnson. His race remained a central element of nearly every story. He was the “Brown Bomber,” the “Dark Destroyer,” the “Sepia Slugger.” Everything he said was translated into Uncle Remus dialect. Paul Gallico of the New York Daily News, one of the sympathetic sportswriters, nonetheless felt free to say that Louis “lives like an animal, fights like an animal, has all the cruelty and ferocity of a wild thing.”
If he were to get a shot at the title, Louis’ handlers told him, he had to be made to seem as different from Johnson as possible. He was forbidden to smile in the ring, or to say anything unkind about an opponent, or to exult in victory. And he was never to be photographed with white women. Louis liked cars, just as Johnson had; to be sure there would be no headlines about speeding tickets, Roxborough and Black hired him a chauffeur. “One time,” he remembered, “we were talking about these little black toy dolls they used to make of fighters. Those dolls always had the wide grin with thick red lips. They looked foolish. I got the message — don’t look like a fool nigger doll. Look like a black man with dignity.” Louis wouldn’t eat watermelon or fried chicken for the cameras, refused to pretend to shoot craps.
Louis demolished Max Baer, his second former heavyweight champion, on September 24, 1935. That same day, he married Marva Trotter. She was lovely and slender — and reassuringly black. Afterward, he promised a Negro reporter that he would “never disgrace the Race.” Even Louis’ mother joined the chorus. “If Joe becomes champion,” she told a reporter,”he’s going to make Jack Johnson ashamed of himself all over again.”
It is little wonder, then, that Johnson came to see every Joe Louis victory, every sports-page paean to the young boxer’s alleged humility and exemplary private life, as a personal slap at him. Every time Louis was called “a credit to his race,” the implication was that Jack Johnson had been a discredit to it.
On June 19, 1936, Louis was to face his third former heavyweight champion, Max Schmeling of Germany. Schmeling was considered over-the-hill and more or less an easy mark for Louis, who entered the ring at Yankee Stadium a 10-to-1 favorite. But Johnson disagreed. “Louis holds his left too low,” he told everyone who would listen, “and the first fellow who makes him step back and then throws a right at his chin will knock him out.” He was right, and Johnson was at ringside to see it. Schmeling hit Louis with overhand rights all evening, and in the twelfth round, groggy and bewildered, he was knocked out. His steady march toward a title shot had been halted by the German veteran, precisely as Johnson’s had been by Marvin Hart twenty-seven years earlier.
Johnson couldn’t have been more pleased. He’d bet heavily on Schmeling, and after collecting his winnings he headed uptown with a fat roll, which he insisted on waving around as he walked along 125th Street. Black fans who had already taken out their disappointment on several whites who had happened to stray into Harlem — five had been sent to the hospital — were not amused by Johnson’s noisy celebrating. An angry crowd surrounded him. Punches were thrown. Policemen had to be called to rescue Jack Johnson from the people who had once lined the same street to cheer him.
Louis fans were unforgiving. Months later, when Johnson was introduced from the ring at a charity boxing show in Harlem, the crowd rose to its feet to jeer him. “Once the hero of his race, he is now the most despised man in it,” the Pittsburgh Courier reported. “Jack Johnson felt the full brunt of his own people’s disapproval of him. Johnson attempted to make a speech, but such a salvo of boos greeted him, he stood in embarrassment for five minutes, while the crowd refused to give him a chance to talk.”” The Amsterdam News headlined its story JACK JOHNSON RAZZED — AGAIN.
Johnson was unrepentant. White people had never been able to make him change his mind or alter his behavior. Black people couldn’t, either. When James J. Braddock unexpectedly granted Joe Louis a shot at his championship – the first time a white champion had given a Negro challenger a boxer to fight for the title since Tommy Burns faced Jack Johnson twenty-seven years earlier — Johnson not only continued to denigrate the black challenger but volunteered to help train the white champion. “Jack Johnson was still running his mouth,” Louis recalled. “He was telling anybody and any paper who’d listen to him that Braddock had everything in his favor, and what he lacked, Johnson’d bone him up on it. He’d advise Braddock from his corner [just as Corbett had counseled Jeffries at Reno], and this would unnerve me. With all his talking and such, Braddock never hired him. Nobody likes a poor, sore-ass loser.”
The champion could have used the help. On June 22, 1937, at Comiskey Park in the heart of the Chicago black belt that had once hailed Jack Johnson as its hero, Joe Louis battered Braddock for seven rounds and knocked him out in the eight to become heavyweight champion of the world. A big crowd was waiting outside when the champion and his wife got home. One man shouted his thanks to God that “we got another chance!” Another called out, “Don’t be another Jack Johnson.”
Excerpted from Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, by Geoffrey C. Ward. Copyright © 2004 by Geoffrey C. Ward. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.