For today’s Photo Vault picture we are traveling back to the 1940s, where we’ll find the most iconic combat sport athlete of the era: Joseph Louis Barrow aka Joe Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’.
The photograph above is by an unknown photographer and is part of the Bettmann Archive. It was taken on January 6, 1942. It shows a 28-year-old Louis raising his fist to figurines representing Adolf Hitler, Emperor Hirohito (in a very racist depiction) and Benito Mussolini. The picture comes with the following caption:
With one mighty blow of his powerful fist, Joe Louis, world’s heavyweight boxing champ is ready to crush Hitler, Hirochito and Mussolini, made of nuts held in his other hand, at his Greenwood Lake, N.Y., training camp January 6th. Joe meets Buddy Baer in a return 15-round title bout at Madison Square Garden in New York City January 9th. The proceeds will go to the Navy Relief Society.
Louis was born in 1914 in Chambers County, Alabama. In the 1920s, after an encounter with thugs of the Klu Klux Klan Louis’ family moved to Detroit.
In Motor City a teenage Louis split his time between the Ford Motor Company and the local rec center. It’s at the rec center that he first put on a pair of boxing gloves.
In 1933 Louis won the Detroit-area Golden Gloves Novice Division championship. A flourishing amateur career followed, where he would record 50 wins, 43 via way of knockout.
As a pro Louis quickly showed he was a world champion caliber talent. However, he had far more opponents than just those who’d dared step in the ring with him. In a society that was more overt with its systemic racism than today, boxing and mainstream culture were loathe to elevate Louis to the pinnacle of the sport.
Although, thanks in part to some promotional maneuvering, and largely to Louis’ undeniable excellence he eventually became a marketable star for the American public. This attitude shift coincided with Louis claiming the world championship belt from James J. Braddock at Madison Square Garden on June 22, 1937.
During the prime of Louis’ career Europe erupted into war.
Our featured picture shows Louis posing ahead of a charity bout that would raise $47,000 for the Navy Relief Fund. The day after that fight, Louis enlisted as a private in the United States Army.
Louis did his basic training in Fort Riley, Kansas as part of a segregated cavalry unit. Instead of sending him into combat the U.S. Army placed Louis in the Special Services Division and had him go on tour to raise morale among the troops. This mostly involved performing in exhibition matches across Europe.
During his tenure in the armed services Louis advocated on behalf of Black soldiers. There are multiple anecdotes of Louis leveraging his celebrity and importance to the military to secure better treatment for others. One such incident included the arranging for a field of Black candidates to enter Officer Candidate School at Fort Riley. Among those young men was future civil rights icon, and baseball great, Jackie Robinson.
Louis passed away of a heart attack on April 12, 1981. He was just 66-years-old.
He is remembered as one of the greatest boxers in living memory. His records of 25 heavyweight title defenses and a championship reign of 11 years and ten months remain standing. Additionally he is remembered as one of many Black athletes to harness his power for the advancement of anti-racist causes and the betterment of marginalized people in the United States.