Joe Louis’ Fight for Equality Went Quietly Beyond Boxing

Ex-heavyweight champ Joe Louis watches his putt on the first green just miss the cup, as the San Diego Open Golf Championship gets under way, Jan. 17. Barred at first from the tournament, Louis was later entered with amateur standing, but he vows to continue his fight to remove "non-Caucasian" restriction from the Professional Golfers' Association's charter.

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Why you should care

History remembers the “Brown Bomber” for boxing — not for integrating golf

Sixty-nine times Joe Louis manned up his opponent, and all but three times he was the last man standing at the end of the fight. Fifty-two times Louis put his opponent on the canvas.

Louis reigned as heavyweight champion of the world from 1937 to 1949, capturing 25 consecutive title defenses and famously becoming a cultural icon upon defeating Nazi-supported German boxer Max Schmeling in 1938. He wasn’t just Black America’s hero; he was America’s hero — yet history has often remembered him as quiet and nonthreatening, the antithesis of the flamboyant Jack Johnson, who broke boxing’s color barrier in 1908 as the first Black heavyweight champ.

And while Louis lived the rarified life of a celebrity and earned a fortune over the course of his career, this son of an Alabama sharecropper was hardly oblivious to the plight of Black people in segregated America. 

As someone who had volunteered to join the Army — willingly putting on exhibitions for troops — the champ used the media to put the PGA on full blast.

“[My father] would not stay in the White hotels in the South even though he was allowed to,” explains Louis’ son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the longtime CEO of The First Tee. “He said, ‘If my Black brothers can’t stay in this hotel or eat at this restaurant then I won’t.’ That’s who Joe Louis was.”

Documentary filmmaker Benjamin Hedin, a founding director of the Charleston Civil Rights Film Fest, takes Barrow’s point a bit further.

“Everybody knows Jackie Robinson, but nobody knows about the color line in other sports,” explained Hedin. “Even though at the time we’re talking about boxing, which was probably second to baseball and horse racing as the most important and popular sport in America, in Black America Joe Louis has occupied a singular place.”

In 1952, three years after he had retired — after a loss to Rocky Marciano — America would see a different side of Louis. Sponsors of the San Diego Open, looking to get notoriety for their inaugural tournament, had invited Louis, an avid golfer, to play. Also invited were fellow Black golfers Bill Spiller and Eural Clark. Louis accepted the invitation, as did Spiller and Clark. Spiller qualified (but was not allowed to participate as a pro); Clark did not.

Joe Louis Golfing with Bill Spiller

Joe Louis tries out a new putter just acquired by his protege Bill Spiller who was admitted to the Phoenix Open Golf Tournament after a change in the PGA “Non-Caucasian” ruling.

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Tour events at that time, however, were subject to the PGA’s Caucasian-only clause that barred Black golfers from playing tournaments. Chevrolet, the sponsors of the tournament — who extended Louis the invitation — either didn’t know about the rule or wrongly assumed it wouldn’t apply to the former champ.

When told of the rule, Louis countered. As someone who had volunteered to join the Army — willingly putting on exhibitions for troops — the champ used the media to put the PGA on full blast.

“I want people to know what the PGA is,” Louis told The New York Times. “We’ve got another Hitler to get by.” To the Los Angeles Sentinel, he said: “This is the last major sport in America in which Negroes are barred.” 

“By the time San Diego came by, he was moved to make a statement because time had passed and he was open to do it,” explains Al Barkow, former editor-in-chief of Golf Magazine. “Jackie Robinson had broken a barrier in baseball, and the movement was beginning to take hold and so he felt moved to do it.”

Louis’ voice was heard loud and clear, and he indeed became the first Black golfer to compete in a PGA-sanctioned event, on Jan. 17, 1952, where he shot an opening-round 76 — 4 over par in the San Diego Open. Even though he missed the cut with a 158 after 36 holes, it hardly mattered.

“They were telling the heavyweight champion of the world, who was revered by Blacks, Whites, rich and poor, to his face that he couldn’t play,” says Barrow, now 72, of his father’s silent rage. “That was how Joe Louis fought segregation. He really felt that Black golfers should have an equal playing field.”

“Nobody knows about [his efforts to integrate golf] and people don’t report that very much,” says 87-year-old Barkow, who added that Louis helped Black golfers in other ways, including organizing and financing tournaments. “That part of his legacy is not remembered nowadays,” Barkow said of Louis, who died on April 12, 1981, at 66 and was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

“That’s just symptomatic of cultural memory in general, but particularly with Whites,” continued Hedin, who has a documentary about Louis and the San Diego Open in the works. “There were three women arrested on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, although people only know about Rosa Parks.”

Joe Louis: The Fight of His Life from Avalon Films on Vimeo.

As for how his father might have felt about today’s professional athletes’ activism like that of Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, Barrow says: “I don’t think he would have been more vocal than he was because that’s not who Joe Louis was … I think he would have said that Colin [Kaepernick] has a responsibility. Is it the best way to express it? I think he would wonder if it is, but he wouldn’t say no to that by any means.” 

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