Veteran Story graphic by Kimber Garland.
The year was 1938 and Joe Louis, also known as the Brown Bomber, was set for a rematch to defend his world title against Germany’s Max Schmeling at the 70,000 capacity Yankee Stadium in New York City. It was a momentous occasion, not just because of the two fighters involved but also because of the situation the world was facing at this moment in history. Nazi Germany was on the rise in Europe and in many ways, the fight foreshadowed the global conflict that was to follow.
The fight barely lasted one round. In a ferocious hail of hits, Louis put Schmeling on his back two minutes into the bout and in the process, sent a message to the Nazi leadership in Germany. In many ways, the fight foreshadowed America’s national fight which came only a few short years later. The United States rejoiced and celebrated, and for the first time, an African American man was hailed as a sporting champion, representing his country in a fight that was about much more than just boxing. For Louis, this wouldn’t be the only time he would join the fray on behalf of his country.
Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling (Library of Congress)
As America entered World War II in 1941, Louis considered it a patriotic duty to enlist and help the war cause in any way he could. On Jan. 10, 1941, Louis enlisted as a private in the United States Army at Camp Upton, Long Island, New York. The previous day, Louis had raised close to $47,000 on behalf of the Navy Relief Society. Throughout the war, Louis would routinely fight in exhibition matches, a stunning total of 96 fights, raising a total of approximately $100,000 throughout the war, which is equivalent to approximately $1.6 million today. The Army immediately knew Louis was a boon for morale and for raising the esprit de corps among service members. Serving in the same segregated unit as baseball great Jackie Robinson, Louis never saw combat but was promoted to technical sergeant in 1945 and earned the Legion of Merit for “incalculable contribution to the general morale” of the military forces.
Joe Louis was one of the most celebrated fighters in American history. Louis held the title of “World Heavyweight Champion,” longer than anyone else in history, defending the honor countless times. Beyond his skill in the ring, Louis cared deeply about the future of his country as well as the future of fellow African Americans. Throughout his career and his stint with the military, Louis routinely advanced the causes of young African American service members and was able to navigate a precarious and racially charged media atmosphere to gain the respect and admiration of the public. Out of the ring, Louis was a great humanitarian and patriot and advanced the cause of African Americans in the country through his public relations work and his connections with people. His legacy towers above us, and he will always be remembered as a champion. We honor your service, Joe Louis.
Graphic designer: Kimber Garland
Editor: Taryn Gehman
Fact checker: Seng Hla