Joe Louis’ decision to fight for the segregated Navy was deeply unpopular — until Pearl Harbor was bombed — The Undefeated

In the years before Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy liked things white — from Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet to their white dress uniforms and white gloves. By 1940, Black sailors comprised a mere 2.3% of the force, most of them as kitchen workers. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox told President Franklin Roosevelt and a gathering of civil rights leaders in June 1941 that he would resign his office before giving an order to end segregation. “Men live in such intimacy aboard ship,” he argued, “that we simply can’t enlist Negroes above the rank of messman.”

Blues guitarist Josh White criticized the hypocrisy of battling Nazi racial ideology with Jim Crow armed services in his 1941 song “Uncle Sam Says.” After noting that Uncle Sam wanted no Black pilots, he continued:

“The same thing for the Navy when ships go to sea

All they got is a mess boy’s job for me

Uncle Sam says, ‘Keep on your apron, son

You know I ain’t going to let you shoot my big Navy gun’ ”

It did not take Sigmund Freud to interpret the implied emasculation of the lyrics.

So many Black Americans struggled to understand why, in the month after Pearl Harbor, Joe Louis, the most popular Black man in America and probably the world, would defend his boxing crown and donate his entire purse to the Navy Relief Society fund.

There had never been a heavyweight champion quite like Louis. Since winning the title in June 1937, he had successfully defended it a remarkable 19 times. Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey, two of the greatest champions of an earlier era, had fought eight and five successful defenses, respectively.

Heavyweight champion Joe Louis (left) and promoter Mike Jacobs (right) in Louis’ dressing room at the Polo Grounds after Louis had retained his title in the fight with Billy Conn in June 1941.

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And it wasn’t just his victories in the ring that accounted for Louis’ fame. He inspired and uplifted the aspirations for equality by Black Americans. That was why dozens of songs celebrated his achievements; why novelist Richard Wright wrote that he was “the concentrated essence of black triumph over white”; why singer Lena Horne affirmed that he “carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of vengeance”; why poet Maya Angelou recalled with pride that he was “a Black boy … some Black mother’s son.”

Then how did this exemplar of Black pride get mixed up with the Navy? The explanation can be traced back to a month before the day that now lives in infamy. In the beginning of November 1941, the German army neared the gates of Moscow, U-boats sank an alarming number of British ships every week, and Americans were divided into noninterventionist and interventionist camps.

Indeed, an undeclared war had already commenced. As American warships and armed merchant ships helped convoys carry supplies to England, German submarines responded by attacking U.S. vessels. In early September, a U-boat torpedoed the USS Greer, although the American ship limped into a safe harbor. In mid-October, the USS Kearny was hit by two torpedoes and made her way back to Iceland with 11 dead among her casualties.

The sinking of the USS Reuben James caused the greatest hue and cry. As folk singer Woody Guthrie soon immortalized in song, “One hundred men were drowned in that dark and watery grave/When that good ship went down only 44 were saved.” Actually, 115 of the crew of 159 died, but Guthrie’s tribute made its point.

The fighting — not to mention the enormous publicity the sinking of the Reuben James generated — caught the eye of Mike Jacobs, the leading boxing promoter of the day. In truth, where there was money to be made, Jacobs could twist any racial, religious, moral or patriotic cause to his advantage.

Everyone in the boxing game called the promoter “Uncle Mike.” He encouraged informality. It endowed him with a familiar, harmless air that was accentuated by his cheap suits and the rattle of his store-bought false teeth. But the sobriquet fit him about as well as “Uncle Joe” suited Joseph Stalin. Peering intensely through his glasses, he unnerved anyone negotiating a deal with him. “When you heard his teeth clack and looked into those dark eyes,” recalled boxing writer Dan Daniel, “you instinctively felt for your wallet.”

His finest day came in 1935 when he convinced Louis’ management team to give him an exclusive contract to promote the boxer’s fights. The deal was worth millions to the Louis team — and to Jacobs. It paved the way for Jacobs to take over promotions in Madison Square Garden and the prime summer dates for major fights in Yankee Stadium. By the end of 1941, Jacobs had featured Louis in eight Yankee Stadium bouts, including both of the lucrative and politically important contests against German Max Schmeling. But no bull market lasts forever. Jacobs understood that went for boxing as much as the stock market. His answer to the Atlantic crisis was to make as much money as he could before war ended his business opportunities. In September 1940, not even three months after Germany had defeated France, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the first peacetime draft into law. Three months later in Boston Garden, Louis began an unprecedented series of title defenses promoted by Uncle Mike.

Billy Conn (left) congratulates Joe Louis (right) in the ring after they fought at the Polo Grounds. Louis retained his world heavyweight title, knocking out Conn in the 13th round in 1941.

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A heavyweight champion typically defended his title once or twice a year. Louis risked his more often, averaging between three and four matches per year. But in what reporters dubbed the “Bum of the Month” campaign, Louis put his crown on the line once a month between December 1940 and June 1941, and after a two-month pause, defended it once again in September. And far from bums, many of the challengers were quality fighters — including highly ranked Abe Simon, Buddy Baer, Lou Nova and especially Billy Conn.

The steady drip-drip of training camps, travel and punches took a toll. Battling through 55 championship rounds over 10 months — and hundreds more in training camps — aged Louis. Increasingly, the “Bum of the Month” campaign became a high-wire act without a net, designed only to provide paydays for Jacobs and Louis’ managers. Observers thought that Louis was taking more and harder punches. As early as his April match against Tony “Baby Tank” Musto, referee Arthur Donovan, Louis’ virtual house official, told reporters that Louis “had seen better days.”

Louis’ run of eight defenses in 10 months ended in September 1941, the same month that a torpedo pierced the Greer. The attack put the war on the Atlantic on the front page of American newspapers. The loss of life on the Kearny and the sinking of the Reuben James kept it there. Sensitive to the national mood, and conscious of the possibility of a windfall of free publicity, Jacobs suggested that for the benefit of the grieving nation Joe defend his title once again and donate his purse to the Navy Relief Society, a private fund that assisted dependents of killed or disabled naval officers and crewmen.

Louis hesitated. From the beginning of his career, his managers John Roxborough and Julian Black had insisted that he project a racially and politically nonthreatening image. They wanted his public behavior to signify that he was not another Jack Johnson, and posed no threat to America’s racial status quo. Louis wasn’t to gloat over a fallen fighter, show excessive emotions after a victory, go into a nightclub alone, and never, ever have his photograph taken alone with a white woman. Yet in his quiet way, Louis did work for change. As the pace toward war quickened, and American representatives emphasized that the U.S., unlike Nazi Germany, was a bastion of democracy, tolerance and equality, Louis pressured the government to make good on its claims. Pittsburgh Courier columnist Billy Rowe recalled interviewing Louis shortly after Jacobs proposed the Navy Relief match.

What was Joe’s opinion of America’s segregated armed forces, Rowe asked? “No comment,” Louis answered.

He knew the reputation of the Navy among Black Americans. The Naval Academy at Annapolis had never graduated a Black midshipman, and the Navy’s approach to race relations was paternalistic at best, violently racist at its worst. Louis’ decision to fight for the Navy was his subtle attempt to expose its racial hypocrisy and pressure the institution to change. As he told Rowe and others, “There’s lots of things wrong. Anybody knows that. But Hitler ain’t going to fix them.” Jacobs selected Buddy Baer, younger brother of former champion Max Baer, as Louis’ opponent. A big (6-foot-6, 237 pounds), rugged fighter, Baer had knocked out contenders “Two Ton” Tony Galento and Simon. Louis had fought him in May 1941. During that brutal contest, Baer knocked the champion out of the ring, cut his left eye and bloodied his face, and forced him to clench to clear his head. Between Baer’s successful assaults, Louis punished the challenger, pounding him with repeated left hooks and straight rights. In the sixth round, the two warriors traded punches until Louis landed a devastating right, knocking Baer to the canvas. Somehow Baer struggled to his feet. As spectators screamed with excitement, Louis, one of the finest finishers in the history of the sport, pushed forward, landing another right that dropped his opponent for a final time. Unfortunately, the bell had already sounded, though neither the fighters nor the referee had heard it. Baer’s seconds dragged him to his corner but could not revive him sufficiently to continue. After seeing Baer’s condition and an argument with the challenger’s manager about the late punch, Donovan awarded the bout to Louis on a disqualification.

A rematch was natural and, given the likelihood the U.S. might enter the war, Jacobs selected an early date. On Nov. 10, the champion traveled from Detroit to New York. A contingent of uniformed naval officers greeted him at Grand Central Station. The next day he signed a contract to fight Baer on Jan. 9, 1942, in the Garden. It would be the 20th defense of his crown, but the first one he fought for nothing but training expenses. After the contract was signed, Louis slipped out of the city for his Greenwood Lake training camp. Louis might have silently skipped town, but as he suspected, his actions spoke loudly, drawing national attention to the discriminatory policies of the armed forces and especially the Navy. His decision to fight for the Navy Relief Society raised a series of incendiary questions. When — not if — the war came, what should be the response of millions of Black Americans who were denied basic rights and often beaten or lynched without provocation or punishment for their attackers?

Almost a half year earlier, on June 6, 1941, Wright, whose 1940 novel Native Son had catapulted him to international fame, had addressed that question at the Fourth American Writers’ Congress. Left-leaning liberals, progressives and communists populated the Writers’ Congress’ ranks, and Wright’s voice was important enough to draw a distinguished group of Hollywood writers and East Coast luminaries into the packed ballroom of the Hotel Commodore in New York. Titled Not My People’s War and published less than two weeks later in the Marxist magazine New Masses, Wright’s blistering address articulated what only a few Black Americans had said but many undoubtedly felt. The problem, Wright explained, was not racism abroad but the “process of democracy at home. We need jobs. We need shelter … We need the Thirteen and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution enforced. We need the Bill of Rights translated into living reality. We need to see anti-lynching bills and anti-poll tax bills passed by the Congress of the United States.”

Joe Louis enlisted in the Army at a local draft board in New York City on Jan. 10, 1942, the day after he knocked Buddy Baer out in less than three minutes during their bout at Madison Square Garden.

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As simple as it was revolutionary, Wright’s message demanded freedom for Black citizens at home and dark-skinned people laboring under imperialism around the world. (In calling for noninvolvement in the war, Wright, a member of the Communist Party in the United States, was following the party line. Less than a week after New Masses published his speech, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, prompting an immediate reversal in the party line. Although Wright stopped short of complete reversal, he no longer made such definitive pronouncements.)

Wright’s speech didn’t attract much attention in the press at the time, not even in African American papers. But when Louis announced his intention to fight for the Navy Relief Society, the response was loud and immediate. Even before the official notice of the fight, Dan Burley, lead sportswriter for the Amsterdam News, opposed it. Harlem Cold On Louis Bout, read the headline of his story. How could Louis support the “most discriminatory” service branch? “Negroes will stay away in droves from that particular fight when they realize that the Jim Crow Navy will get the benefit,” commented a man Burley interviewed. Like all Black Americans, the reporter was proud of Louis. “Proud of him as a man. Proud of his record and what he has done toward breaking down barriers of prejudice and discrimination. Make no mistake about it. Joe Louis is a mighty influence for good.” But Burley maintained that the boxer was “dead wrong” to do anything in support of the Navy, an organization “hostile to all ideals of fair play and democratic treatment of ALL of this nation’s citizens.”

The Pittsburgh Courier, the most widely read African American newspaper, took a less critical stand. Fostering debate, the editors polled religious, political and social leaders. Several argued that Louis’ decision to raise money for the Navy Relief Society underscored discriminatory and racist attitudes in the military. Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, responded that “Joe has proven himself far bigger than the Navy. Let us hope his example may have some effect on the outfit.” Others agreed, arguing that the boxer’s patriotism might prompt a radical change in military policy. They hoped that Louis’ beneficence would, in the words of educator Emmett Scott, “shame Secretary Knox” and other naval leaders and “lessen that mean spirit and un-Americanism which characterizes every attitude of the Navy toward Negroes.”

A Ring Magazine cover from July 1942 shows boxers Billy Conn (left) and Joe Louis (right).

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Other African American leaders doubted that the Navy would budge much. M.C. Clark, president of Dunbar Mutual Insurance Co., captured the gist of the opponents’ argument: “I am as much opposed to Hitlerism in our Navy as I am opposed to Hitlerism in Europe, and since our Navy discriminates against Negroes I am opposed to Joe Louis placing his title at stake … to help the Navy continue its un-American practices. Racial discrimination in our Navy is Hitlerism of the worst sort.” Throughout November and early December, a river of editorials, columns and polls flowed from the Black press. Such headlines as NATION-WIDE VOTE INDICATES RACE SUPPORTING JOE and LOUIS STILL UNDER FIRE FOR ROLE OF NAVY GOOD SAMARITAN enticed readers. Burley regularly featured the debate. The Navy, he wrote, expected Louis “to cringe, show his teeth and grin and come bouncing like the sorriest Uncle Tom to do its bidding — giving everything, receiving nothing.” He considered the match a tragic error and begged Louis not to “sell out his race.”

News of Hitler’s conquests in Europe and the undeclared war on the Atlantic framed the controversy. Japan’s actions in China and Asia figured not at all. Then came Dec. 7 and the shock of Pearl Harbor. There were a few reports of African Americans welcoming the assault. An early and not very scientific 1942 survey indicated that about 1 in 5 believed that they would benefit from a Japanese victory. “The colored races as a whole would benefit if Japan should win the war,” one man told a Baltimore Afro-American reporter. “This could be the first step in the darker races coming back into their own.” And as he later recounted in his autobiography, Malcolm Little, long before he replaced his last name with an X, thought, “Whitey owns everything. He wants us to go and bleed for him? Let him fight.”

A poster of boxer Joe Louis in a combat uniform, circa 1942.

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Yet before the wreckage in Pearl Harbor was cleared, almost all Americans, Black and white, condemned the attack and supported the war in the Pacific. Overnight, Louis’ upcoming title defense became a symbol of patriotism. To be sure, the fight against racism and Jim Crow at home did not abate — the Double V campaign would begin exactly two months after Pearl Harbor. Yet criticism of Louis virtually disappeared. For six weeks, the heated deliberation over the fight had raged. Now it ended. Under the headline Louis, Navy Fight For Each Other — Nothing Else Matters Now! Wendell Smith, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote, “For America … this is no time to quibble. And for the Negro this is no time to turn his back to the United States of America.” Accepting the mood of the hour, he asserted that “Joe Louis must fight Buddy Baer for the benefit of the Navy. The color question, discrimination and segregation now become secondary. There is only one thing that counts … America.” Smith concluded, “Joe Louis has an obligation to the Navy, just as the Navy has an obligation to the people of this nation.” The events of Dec. 7 similarly altered Louis’ view of the Baer match. Before the attack, he was apt to joke with reporters about how he wasn’t getting paid. In late November, journalist Art Carter asked him about his strategy for the fight. “I’m fighting for nothing,” Louis replied, “so I don’t expect the fight to last long.” But that jocular rejoinder changed after Pearl Harbor. When Amsterdam News reporter Roi Ottley questioned him about his motives for participating in the match, Louis gave a freshly patriotic response: “There’s no place in the world could a one-time black cotton picker like me get to be a millionaire. I love this country like I love my people.” As for donating his purse, he added, “Ain’t fighting for nothing. I’m fighting for my country.”

The month between the U.S. declaration of war and the Louis-Baer match on Jan. 9 unfolded like a tragic opera. The United States and Western Europe appeared in peril, while Japan steamed from one successful battle to the next. From Guam and Wake Island to the Philippines, the string of fallen islands shocked America. It was mixed with equally grim reports from British Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore; the Dutch East Indies; and French Indochina. If it were not for bad war news, there would have been no news at all. In this dark context, the magnanimity of Louis shone like a candle in the night.

Buddy Baer (right) and champion Joe Louis (left) after Louis knocked him out on Jan. 9, 1942, for the Navy Relief Society fund.

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On the night of the contest, Madison Square Garden was dressed for the occasion. U.S. flags hung from the rafters and were featured prominently in programs and printed tributes. Red, white and blue bunting greeted the 17,000 people in the Garden at every turn. Celebrities packed the ringside seats, including Joe DiMaggio, Gene Tunney and other New York sports and entertainment idols. Also in attendance were many of the nation’s political and military power hitters. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard attended as representative of Knox, who had more pressing war business. A fleet of admirals and other naval leaders flanked Bard. Praise for the champion was the order of the day. Lucy Monroe, the “Star-Spangled Soprano,” embraced by a single white spotlight that knifed through the darkened arena, performed an emotional rendition of the national anthem. Then 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie stepped up to the microphone.

A corporate lawyer from Indiana, Willkie clearly was no follower of the fight game. He confused Buddy Baer with his brother Max, and pronounced Louis “Lou-ee,” as if Louis were a descendant of a Bourbon king. Lack of sports knowledge aside, Willkie knew how to work an audience. Standing in the ring, he began, “I took on a champion myself last year.” A broad smile crossed his face as the crowd roared. “I lost but I had a lot of fun while the struggle lasted.” But now “the conviction that American democracy shall rule the world” united him and his opponent. Finally, it came time to acknowledge the champion. “Joe Lou-ee, your magnificent example of risking for nothing your championship belt, won literally with toil and sweat and tears, prompts us to say, ‘We thank you.’ And in view of your attitude, it is impossible for me to see how any American can think of discrimination in terms of race, creed, color.” A short time later, former New York Mayor Jimmy Walker commented that in fighting for the Navy Relief Society, Louis “laid a rose on the grave of Abraham Lincoln.”

For the record, Louis’ contribution totaled $47,100, approximately $900,000 in today’s dollars. 

As for the title fight, it was about as exciting and short as Louis’ rematch had been with Schmeling in 1938. Louis’ right hand landed early and hard. After he knocked Baer down twice in the first round, he landed a devastating left hook just before the bell. Baer went down like he had been shot, his head bouncing off the canvas. For a few seconds he lay inert, then slowly struggled to one knee before crumbling once again. The referee counted him out four seconds before the end of Round 1. Louis had promised that he would not fight long for free.

Randy Roberts is the author of Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, as well as other biographies. With Johnny Smith, he wrote Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

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