Through a glass darkly – 94

Heavyweight boxing

I’ve never had any real interest in boxing, not at any weight. I think the last fight in which I showed any interest was in February 1964, when Cassius Clay, as he was then known, a glib, fast-talking challenger from Louisville, Kentucky, got in the ring with the fearsome Sonny Liston. And won the world heavyweight title for the first time when Liston failed to come out of his corner at the beginning of the seventh round.

Several years before that, when I was still at primary school, there was what must have been a very modest bookshop in Replingham Road, in Southfields, the suburb in south-west London where I grew up. Other shops on the same street included Thorpe’s, a tobacconist and  sweet-shop [Charlie Thorpe once gave my brother and me a cigar each for Christmas, which rather miffed my father.] And Christmas the chemist. [Who gave Paul and me some screw-top aluminium containers for tea and sugar when we went hitch-hiking in France in 1961. Did his daughter become a journalist on The Guardian ? Or did I dream that ?]

Anyway this little bookshop had some paperback books outside on a display rack. Which I assumed were there for me to read. So I read quite a lot of The Scourge of the Swastika, a best-selling history of Nazi war crimes by Lord Russell of Liverpool, a former Judge Advocate.   And I also read most of a book on world champion heavyweight boxers. From which I learned that the two greatest champions  [the term GOAT was still several decades in the future] were Jack Johnson, the ‘Galveston Giant’, the American world champion in the early years of the twentieth century, and Joe Louis, another Afro-American heavyweight, who was world champion from 1937 to 1949.

In black and white

Donald McRae is a South African journalist who used to live in Southfields. Much more recently than me.  He wrote a book Winter Colours, about South African and New Zealand rugby, and about the professionalisation of rugby in the 1990s, which was described as “the best book about rugby ever written”. That may have been the book that encouraged us to call one of our Lyon cats Josh, after Josh Kronfeld, the New Zealand back-row forward. It won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in 1998. The book, not the cat ! And last autumn I enjoyed reading his book In Black and White, the story of the first two black American super-stars, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. But I didn’t write anything about it at the time because I was preoccupied with other things; with Joanna, and the Men’s Retreat, and preparing for a locum spell at St Peters, Chantilly.

Jesse Owens was a slim, 5”10”, 165 pounds, born in 1913 into a sharecropping community in northern Alabama. James Cleveland [J.C.] Owens was his parents’ tenth and last child, sickly as a baby from repeated bouts of pneumonia. His grandfather was a slave. In 1923 the family fled from fraught, black life in Oakville, Alabama, and headed north to Cleveland, Ohio. At East Tech High School in Cleveland Jesse won seventy eight of the seventy nine races he ran in. Jesse was signed up by Ohio State university and became a stand-out member of their athletics team. In June 1935 at the national collegiate meeting, Jesse won the 100-yard and 220-yard sprint, the 220-yard low hurdles and the long jump. He scored forty of Ohio State’s forty-one points; and single-handedly earned more points than such college teams as UCLA, Notre Dame, Princeton, Yale and Harvard. A month later he married his childhood sweetheart, Minnie Ruth Solomon.

Joe Louis was another young black American, the same age as Jesse Owens. His family too had moved north from the dangerous rawness of Alabama. In 1934-35 Joe Louis won twenty two consecutive fights, eighteen by knock-out. His support team was a rare all black entourage; Roxy was a cultured hustler, who ran a numbers racket in Detroit; Mr Black was a qualified embalmer who ran a speak-easy in Chicago. The poker-faced Joe was quickly taken up by a posse of Hollywood stars; Bojangles Robinson, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Mae West. In June 1935, at the Yankee Stadium in New York Joe demolished the giant Italian Primo Carnera [aka The Man Mountain, The Gorgonzola Tower]. He had won his first big fight in New York. People were on their feet screaming his name. For the International New Service, Davis Walsh wrote: “Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle tonight to strike down and utterly demolish Primo Carnera, the giant …”.

Jesse Owens and Joe Louis had suddenly become national stars and role models. “If athletic greatness was a gift to be bestowed at will”, Bill Henry wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “the coloured race couldn’t have chosen two more remarkable men than Jesse Owens and Joe Louis to be its outstanding representatives. Owens … as the greatest track-and-field athlete of all time … Same goes for ‘Dead Pan’ Joe Louis whose decisive defeat of Carnera has sent scribes scurrying to their dictionaries in search of superlatives … … it is a pretty tough test of character. Owens arrived at the threshold of notoriety achieved by few young men, Now Louis, another Negro, is thrust in front of the gawking, staring world, eager to hail him, spoil him, and, if possible, ruin him.”

August in Berlin

In July 1936 Jesse Owens set sail for Berlin on the SS Manhattan, one of nineteen Negroes on the US team. For nine days the athletes lived in Third Class on Deck D below the water line, while the team officials cruised far above in First Class. During the voyage Eleanor Jarrett, the beautiful twenty two year old swimmer from Brooklyn, the femme fatale of the team was expelled from the team by Avery [Slavery] Brundage for being very publicly drunk on champagne. Brundage was an autocratie ex-Olympian decathlete who had made a fortune in the construction industry,

Hitler opened the Olympic Games on August 1st, 1936. They were to be an international showpiece for the German Reich; recorded for posterity by the young film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, best known for her luminous depiction of the Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Hitler and his entourage attended the games each day in anticipation of celebrating the triumphs of German athletes. On August 2nd, Hitler and his contingent left their box hastily as Jesse Owens and Dave Allbritton, both Negroes, won gold and silver medals in the high jump. On Saturday, August 8th, the US 4 x 100 yards relay team, with Jesse running the first leg, won the gold medal and broke the world record. Jesse Owens had become the first man in history to win four gold medals.

Joe Louis and Max Schmeling

In June 1937, at Comiskey Park, Chicago, Joe Louis knocked out James Braddock to become the new heavyweight champion of the world. And the second black champion in history. Across Chicago and all of America black crowds clustered around radios and loudspeakers shouting ‘Joe Louis … champion …  Joe Louis … champion’.  A year later, in the Yankee Stadium, New York, Joe fought the experienced and dangerous German heavyweight Max Schmeling. Who had knocked out Joe in a brutal fight two years earlier. The rematch in June 1938 attracted enormous publicity, and gave rise to unpleasant taunts of nationalism and racialism. In a ghosted, syndicated newspaper column, Joe Louis declared: “Tonight I not only fight the battle of my life to revenge the lone blot on my record. But I fight for America against the challenge of a foreign invader, Max Schmeling. This isn’t just one man against another, or Joe Louis boxing Max Schmeling; its the good old USA versus Germany”.

It was a massacre. Joe Louis crushed Max Schmeling in just two minutes and four seconds. The Nazis abruptly shut down the live broadcast in Germany. Duke Ellington was one of many at the ringside who was bewildered by the speed of the victory: “I dropped my goddamn straw hat … it was rolling around by my feet. I was just trying to pick it up so I can sit down and watch Joe … And then all of a sudden  they all start jumping and hollering. I can’t fucking believe it. The goddamn fight is over”. Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Black days

After the Berlin Olympics Jesse never raced again. He and the other amateur athletes made thousands of dollars for the AAU. Commercial sponsors made Jesse all kinds of offers. And the millionaire Avery Brundage had him suspended for breaking the rules on amateurism. So he spent the next few years racing against ice skaters and greyhounds and in Havana, Cuba, a thoroughbred racehorse called Julio McCaw. The Olympic champion had become a circus act. He was almost as fast as he had been as Olympic champion, but he was reduced to racing against motor-cycles and double-decker buses. In May 1939 with the collapse of his Jesse Owens Dry Cleaning Company [his partners took him to the cleaners] he was declared bankrupt.

Joe Louis was in a similar situation. After defeating Schmeling in 1938, he had a busy two years fighting a series of forgotten challengers, who came to known as the ‘Bum of the Month Club’. But his appetite for food and for showgirls was insatiable. His annual income was $250,000, but by July 1941 he was $100,000 in debt to his promoter and manager, and he owed the tax-man almost another $100,000. And Marva, his long-suffering wife, left him.

Both Joe and Jesse served in the US army in the Second World War. When Joe was discharged  from the US army in 1945 and fought Billy Conn, he was $210,000 in debt, a mix of taxes and alimony payments. In September 1950, at the age of thirty six, Joe was humiliated by the younger and lighter Ezzard Charles. A year later, in an ill-advised come-back he was badly beaten by the young slugger Rocky Marciano. Sugar Ray Robinson and Josephine Baker wept openly in his dressing room. Joe never got in the boxing ring again.

Donald McRae tells the story well; the meteoric rise and slow fall of two black super-stars. By 1954 Jesse had been voted by an Associated Press Poll as the greatest athlete of the past fifty years and was now Secretary of the Illinois State Athletic Commission. But J. Edgar Hoover was ordering an urgent investigation into him as one of the “commies, reds, pinkos, and niggers” who were plotting America’s downfall. And in the 1960s the federal government accused him of failing to file income tax returns and of several years of systematic tax evasion.

Joe meanwhile had hit the skids; owed over $1,000,000 in taxes, and had a brief and unsuccessful spell as a professional wrestler. A low point from which he was eventually rescued by his third marriage to Martha Jefferson, a black attorney from California, who became his wife, lawyer, cook, mistress, press agent, valet de chambre, and tax consultant.


Joe Louis and Jesse Owens both died at the age of sixty-six. Jesse died of cancer in Tucson in March 1980. Later that day Simon Wiesenthal proposed that the avenue leading to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin should be renamed Jesse Owens Avenue. Joe died in March 1981. His body ‘lay in state’ at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas; Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr sang at his funeral, and the eulogy was pronounced by the Revd Jesse Jackson. 

After Jesse’s death, the Detroit Free Press reprinted an article by him:

After the Olympic Games in Berlin, I came back to my country and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door … … and of course Joe Louis and I were the first modern sports figures who were black. So neither of us could do any national advertising because the South wouldn’t buy it … … when Joe and I came along, blacks in America had no image … … We agreed the only way to help our people was by deeds. We didn’t make waves. We were called Uncle Toms later. But the 1960s were something else. Back then, our way was the only way.”

Is everything different now ? As this book wants to suggest. Certainly Obama was the first [very impressive] black President of the United States. And here in the UK, the three most important offices of state are held by [the rather less impressive] Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly, and Suella Braverman. Respectively the son of African-born parents of Punjabi descent, the son of parents from Britain and Sierra Leon, and the daughter of parents of Indian descent who were immigrants from Mauritius and from Kenya. [Which makes me wonder how many of them would have been welcomed into the UK under present rules by this present government.]

But the Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013, came into being specifically to highlight and to combat racism, discrimination, and racial inequality suffered by black people. While here in the UK the Casey Report, published only last month found the Metropolitan Police guilty of institutional racism, misogyny, and homophobia. 

Jesse Owens and Joe Louis gained victories that raised a banner for the disenfranchised black population of America. But I guess the struggle is by no means over.

April 2023

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: