Joe Louis was the World's Most Popular Athlete; Racist Businessmen Refused to Let Him Endorse FordsRoundup
tags: racism, Detroit, auto industry, Boxing, Sports History, endorsements, athletes, Joe Louis
Silke-Maria Weineck is the Grace Lee Boggs Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the co-author of City of Champions: A History of Triumph and Defeat in Detroit (The New Press, 2020).
It’s 1948, and Joe Louis is ready to quit boxing. He has been heavyweight champion for more than a decade, longer than any fighter before him. After carrying a near-messianic burden, he gets in touch with Henry Ford II himself to see if he can open a car dealership in Chicago.
Louis’s biographers usually pass over this ambition to sell Fords. If they mention it at all, they say it just didn’t work out, in the way famous boxers’ ventures frequently fail. But a document in a folder archived in the Benson Ford Research Center sums up the reasons why it didn’t work out:
1. Move has political implications. 2. Timing is bad. 3. Additional business may be more than offset by business it may lose us. 4. Will establish precedent hard to stop. 5. Only benefit brief publicity. 6. Publicity on the whole will be unfavorable. 7. Mixed meeting embarrassing or impossible. 8. Competition sure to start whispering campaign. 9. Dealer reaction unfavorable. 10. Jeopardize prestige of Company. 11. Detrimental effect on all dealers.
Those are 11 ways to say, “Joe Louis is Black.”
The file, collated by Ford’s marketing research department, contains 32 letters by dealers and regional and district managers. Many are deeply disturbing, but you can see a few twinges of bad conscience. The documents show the inner workings of mid-century middle-class racism; the entanglement of white supremacy and the business world; the industrial North’s willing submission to the open racism of the South; the way in which profit prevails over fair play; the limits even the most admired Black athletes face when they, to quote contemporary discourse, refuse to “shut up and dribble”; and the arch-reactionary orientation of car dealers, which is unchanged to this day.
Louis was without a doubt the most famous Black man on earth, perhaps the most famous American. At the time, boxing was the global sport. In 1938, when Louis took down Max Schmeling, Hitler’s star boxer, 70,000 watched in Yankee Stadium and 100,000,000 were listening on the wireless—still the largest radio audience for a single event in history. Billed as “the fight of the century,” the alleged throw-down between democracy and fascism lasted just two minutes and four seconds. Louis would later say that Schmeling was the only opponent he ever wanted to hurt.
Louis’s standing in the Black community had been unparalleled since his 1935 defeat of the Italian boxer Primo Carnera, a fight where, according to the twisted logic of racial politics, Louis figured as the African representing Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie to Mussolini’s Carnera. Maya Angelou devoted an entire chapter of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to that night. Langston Hughes wrote, “No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions—or on mine.” In the saddest of the stories, retold by Martin Luther King Jr., a convicted man called out, “Save me, Joe Louis!” as the gas started to rise in the death chamber. There were a hundred blues songs calling his name.
None of that mattered to the Ford men (they were all men). Their letters belong to the estate of Walker Alonzo Williams, who had become a general sales manager in 1946. Some of them are addressed to Williams himself, while others went to the regional managers or the vice president and director of sales. Louis’s request to sell Fords appears to have sparked nothing less than a crisis, necessitating all hands on deck. The letters intertwine national, regional, and corporate politics. The writers talk about President Harry Truman and the press, their competitors who, the write believe, would make hay of such a move, and their distaste at the thought of having to share a meal with a Black man at a conference. Dictated to secretaries, neither fully public nor private, they reveal racism as white-collar deliberation—the work of men who will sign their name to it, though some mark their letters “personal and confidential.”
They were men of their time, as the saying goes, but 1948 was not just any year in the history of American white supremacy: 1948 was the year of change that wasn’t, of ambitious civil rights reforms that failed, filibustered by Dixiecrats and Republicans. And that, too, makes it into the letters, in evocations of “a principle of American democracy in business” and of “constitutional rights or some such factors.” Some of their rhetorical moves belong to the Jim Crow era. Others remain familiar to this day.
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