Constructing G.I. Joe Louis: Cultural Solutions to the “Negro Problem” during World War II

On January 9, 1942, almost seventeen thousand boxing fans sat on the edge of their seats in Madison Square Garden. American flags hung from the rafters and were plastered on every square inch of wall space. Here at the Navy Relief Society benefit fight, the heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis Barrow, would challenge the formidable Buddy Baer. Louis would risk his title and donate his earnings of approximately one hundred thousand dollars to the victims of the Pearl Harbor bombing. On the eve of the benefit fight, Walter White, the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), expressed great hope that the patriotic actions of Louis, the most famous black fighter, could stir America’s racial conscience—after all, Louis was fighting on behalf of a navy that relegated black Americans to menial positions. Urging Sen. Arthur Capper to write a letter for publication in the New York Times “appealing for the removal of discrimination in the armed services,” White asserted that Capper’s antiracist pronouncement would have “tremendous effect appearing at the psychological moment when newspapers will be carrying accounts of the Louis-Baer fight and of Joe’s generosity despite the discrimination in the Navy.”[1]

Joe Louis’s very participation in the Navy Relief Society fight exalted his patriot-ism, but as he smashed Baer in round one, the fight catapulted him to eminence as a powerful cultural icon. Yet while White connected Louis’s public display of sacrifice with the gradual acceptance of racial reforms, administrators in the Office of War Information (OWI) and the War Department were considering the Louis-Baer fight very differently. As the United States entered the war, state officials understood that they would have to confront explosive racial tensions while gingerly balancing competing political and social interests. The OWI racial adviser Milton Starr proclaimed, “the pure principles of democracy are far from fulfillment in the life of the American Negro. Considering the grave dangers facing the country, it is . . . desirable and necessary to de-emphasize our many long standing internal dissensions and to close ranks as much as practicable for the duration.” While promoting democratic unity, war officials, regardless of their ostensible political coloration, were extremely reticent about endorsing overt antidiscrimination policies. Most administrators agreed that war was not a testing ground for social reform, and even for more strident racial progressives, a political stalemate in Congress stymied consideration of any significant civil rights legislation.[2]

Unable or unwilling to press for structural change, administrators in the War Department and the OWI professed a belief that the use of black cultural symbols could reconcile the escalating “Negro problem” with official pronouncements of American egalitarianism. The use of culture to reduce wartime racial tensions became a subject of frequent debate, as officials questioned which individuals and which sectors of the media could best address black Americans without alarming white Americans. While the discussions lingered and program proposals abounded, state administrators agreed on the cultural efficacy of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, particularly after the Navy Relief Society benefit fight. For the state, Louis would become a powerful symbol, appearing in most media of war propaganda and representing heroism, patriotic values, and black military significance. In and through the Louis persona, state administrators could advocate an ethos of racial liberalism, while temporarily skirting the issue of discrimination in American life.

To the chagrin of Walter White and other black leaders, Louis’s baptism as an American hero required that he mute his stance on the most serious problems plaguing black individuals. The official construction of Joe Louis involved a depoliticization of the Brown Bomber as he became the quintessential symbol of Americanness; Louis was overtly disconnected from charged racial issues, instead representing black patriotism and black citizenship. Governmental attempts carefully to demarcate the construction of Joe Louis, however, demonstrated how plans for cultural production often failed to anticipate the alternative meanings that images offered. When Louis was featured in military boxing exhibitions, on film, and on war posters, the iconography was not easily divorced from the racially charged definition it implied. Furthermore, as the most visible black figure of the war era, portrayed as a moral, patriotic man, Louis countered racial stereotypes frequent in popular culture. Before World War II, the state had not glorified black individuals as war heroes; Louis’s embodiment of this cultural role therefore bore important political implications.

Joe Louis demonstrates boxing technique to soldiers at the Cavalry Replacement Center at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he underwent basic training. Photograph by Press Association, Inc. Courtesy AP/Wide World Photos. National Archives, RG 208 PU-120V-13.

Historians have long examined the armed forces, industry, and electoral activity to investigate both racial discrimination and black agency during this period, confining the meaning of the political to more traditional areas. More recently, such scholars as Barbara Dianne Savage and Thomas Cripps have studied radio and film to investigate black politicization, arguing that mass culture is equally important for understanding the racial dynamics of the wartime era. While my work benefits from the findings of those historians, particularly Savage, I focus on how the use of mass culture to address racial issues was itself a highly contested strategy. And unlike Savage, who focuses on culture that “called for an end to racial segregation and discrimination,” such as the radio show Freedom’s People, I argue that ostensibly depoliticized programs, such as those featuring Joe Louis, are as significant in the study of federal race policy. Whether or not constructions of Joe Louis overtly challenged racial discrimination, they were not devoid of political content. Thus it is important to understand why Joe Louis—as the predominant black figure in all sectors of war propaganda—held such meaning both for those who developed the iconography and for those who received it.[3]

Programs featuring Joe Louis were part of an existing state proclivity for using culture in place of more direct civil rights measures. By 1935, as New Dealers witnessed a growing black constituency within the Democratic party, they developed programs within the Works Progress Administration (WPA) arts projects that underscored black history and cultural achievement. The Federal Writers’ Project’s American Guide series drew attention to the regional diversity of black life, and the Federal Theatre Project developed arenas for black writers, stage technicians, and performers. While the Federal Arts Projects were short-lived, their legacy continued through war agencies such as the OWI and the War Department, which employed former WPA arts staff members and advisers such as the librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, the director John Houseman, and the black actor Carlton Moss. Shifting from the use of high culture during the 1930s to a reliance on mass culture during the 1940s, war administrators adopted the WPA’s method of using culture to address the Negro problem. Debates over the benefits and shortcomings of particular media and the promise of particular black individuals illuminate how culture was constantly reevaluated during this pivotal period.[4]

The wartime cultural apparatus was not monolithic; those who formulated official culture during World War II held a variety of ideologies and political views concerning state policies and procedures. While the OWI and War Department did not merely echo one another in their plans for morale building, they did express a similar understanding of the need for depoliticized racial programs and of the effectiveness of mass culture in securing their objectives. Plans to construct sanitized cultural programs led some racial liberals to resign their posts, but they induced others to adapt their politics to the larger state agenda. This essay will first examine the charged discussions about the use of mass culture to address racial issues. It will then show why Joe Louis became central to state programs and how the administrative intentions behind the construction of Louis as a symbol differed from the alternative, often politically charged meanings the symbol conveyed.

War Agencies Confront the Negro Problem
Of the agencies that addressed racial policy, the War Department displayed the most conservative posture on racial issues. Secretary of War Henry Stimson rejected the prospect of an integrated army, claiming that black individuals did not show the military initiative of their white counterparts. Defining segregation as an “established American custom,” the army demonstrated its unyielding adherence to the racial status quo, stonewalling most challenges from black organizations and white liberals. Maintaining segregated training camps, relegating black soldiers to labor or service units, and denying black Americans access to most naval positions, the War Department worked to maintain traditional racial ideologies under the guise of military expedience. Military officials spent more time discussing and lamenting the Negro problem than they did evaluating black soldiers as a valuable manpower asset. Although neither in the War Department nor in the officer corps was opinion completely homogeneous, the defense of segregation and many southern racial norms were prevalent in military life throughout the war.[5]

The OWI, in contrast, comprised mainly New Deal liberals who viewed racial equality as essential for advancing and defending American democracy. Composed initially of civilian information organizations, the OWI inherited a staff of intellectuals and journalists who viewed themselves as a central “idea center,” disseminating truthful information to the public. The librarian of Congress and noted poet Archibald MacLeish, the popular CBS radio commentator Elmer Davis, and Lowell Mellett, former editor of the Washington Daily News, were among the key players in the OWI. Many had already established relationships with black leaders, and they encouraged an interracial dialogue. Yet, the demands of a highly politicized state and the official policy on quieting wartime racial tensions consistently compromised liberalism in the OWI.[6]

The ambivalence of OWI administrators was revealed during the first crisis concerning the racial management of the war—A. Philip Randolph’s proposed March on Washington in June 1941. According to Randolph, the march would serve “the interest of securing jobs and justice in national defense and fair participation and equal integration into the Nation’s military and naval forces.” MacLeish, the director of the Office of Facts and Figures (OWI’s predecessor), who supported many programs excavating black history as librarian of Congress and who opposed discrimination in government agencies, expressed explicit opposition to the march. He warned that plans for the march might derive from initiatives by Axis interests and “American Fascists” who were attempting to “incite the Negro population” to press for administrative reforms. In a memo to Attorney General Francis Biddle, MacLeish warned that black people would demand “everything in the book” during the march; if the government were to make any concessions, a hostile southern contingent might end its support for the American government and ally with fascist regimes. Whatever opposition to racial inequality officials were willing to express within agency correspondence, they were reticent about supporting large-scale black political mobilization. Administrative hesitance toward publicly endorsing racial reform would greatly influence the programs developed to improve black morale.[7]

Even aside from the organized efforts of Randolph, black discontent was undeniable as the United States entered World War II. To develop programs that would ameliorate these attitudes, administrators first attempted to locate the source of black antipathy to the war effort. Surveying black residents in Memphis and New York, OWI administrators claimed, “The poor morale they [black people] manifest at present does not stem from lack of patriotism, isolationist sentiment or any lack of enthusiasm for democratic values. It is a direct result of the frustrations they experience in their daily lives.” Another OWI report, written in the aftermath of the 1943 Detroit race riot, found poor housing to be the “arch offender” among conditions in black neighborhoods. The report also judged inadequate recreational facilities and poor transportation as “inter-racial irritants,” while Adj. Gen. J. A. Ulio significantly noted the effects of “the advent of warmer weather,” a major factor in the recent riots.[8]

The OWI racial adviser Philleo Nash stressed that black expectations bore greatly on morale. “Both now and as the war progresses,” Nash stated, “the situation of Negroes will be one which will be highly frustrating, inasmuch as there will always be a wide gap between the extent and conditions of Negro participation in the war and their own desires.” Claiming that black individuals had become increasingly cognizant that their labor and military service were much needed during the war, Nash reported that they could use their manpower, coupled with an increased electoral presence, to bargain for “participation on equal economic terms.” Nash insisted that now more than ever the state had to assure black Americans that they would benefit from their support of the war effort. Reporting that “Negroes are agitating for, demand, and expect, much fuller participation than at present in industry, the armed forces, and civilian defense,” Nash urged administrators to recall the dim aftermath of World War I, when black political expectations had quickly been dashed.[9]

Black ambivalence toward the war also concerned individuals outside the state, as explanations for black discontent proliferated. In a letter to the Office of Facts and Figures, the prominent black attorney John Levirt Kelly stated that most black people had “no ties to the European continent, not even far distant ones.” In his opinion it was therefore not unusual that black Americans considered the war a “white man’s war.” Caroline Blake, a white member of the National Urban League, indicated she had learned that black individuals were “unconvinced that they have, in fact, a stake in this country.” Pleading with MacLeish to help blacks through “these troubled times,” liberals such as Blake reminded war officials of the similarities between German and American racism. John Hammond, a prominent white jazz critic and talent agent for the Columbia Broadcasting Company, angrily recalled his visit to a black army training camp in Muskogee, Oklahoma. After entering a dance hall in the “colored area of town” to recruit musicians for camp shows, Hammond was immediately escorted out by four white M.P.’s who warned him to stay away from “knife wielding Niggers.” Describing the visit in a letter to be sent to the Washington Post, Hammond was completely shocked by the rigidity of segregation, which seemed as “complete as anything one might find in fascist countries.”[10]

The southern author Lillian Smith offered one of the most scathing condemnations of the racial status quo, denouncing the hollowness of democratic propaganda. As she indicated in her piercing parody, “Portrait of the Deep South—Speaking to Negroes on Morale”:

Don’t you know defeatist talk about Jim Crow
Is exactly the kind of talk that pulls morale down low?
And for god’s sake, stop asking us to call you mister
(You think I’d want a nigger to marry my sister?)
Listen, colored folks,
You ought to be thankful you have a claim
To be called American (even in name)

Come on darkies, time to start a song
Time to open your mouths now and bellow and strong
and show the whole world you’re as good
an American
as we are
and you’ll fight to the last drop of your blood
for us (but stop complaining about Red Cross separating it you
know they can’t mix white and nigger blood). [11]

Such critiques, made by both state officials and cultural figures, furnished black leaders with a fertile ground for demanding better conditions in the military and on the home front. Criticizing businesses and restaurants that were declared “off limits” to black troops in Walla Walla, Washington, NAACP assistant secretary Roy Wilkins wrote MacLeish, “These are the policies which make it difficult, if not impossible, for Negro leaders, or anyone else, to lift the morale of Negro Americans.” In a report to the attorney general, the Fraternal Council of Negro Churches in America demanded investigations of several racially motivated murders, some involving severe police brutality and others possible links to the Ku Klux Klan. Chairman W. H. Jernagin of the fraternal council used the issue of morale as an incentive for criminal investigations, asserting, “in every type of injustice the working of evil forces . . . undermine our country’s whole victory program. . . . We are sure that you do not want any obstacle to prevent the Negro people from giving their full, united strength to the winning of this war of survival.”[12]

Cultural Solutions and Their Problems
In conceiving remedies to the Negro problem, white administrators set the parameters. Although MacLeish asserted that no government agency should itself accept any tenets or principles of racial segregation, public condemnations of discrimination were another matter. Milton Starr argued that “obviously improvement in the morale of the Negro would automatically follow any real social, political or economic gains.” But he reported that the OWI would not “recommend policy for the correction of many injustices . . . from which the Negro suffers.” Whatever their progressive leanings, administrators made it clear that programs to boost black patriotism would not directly challenge the racial status quo. As Philleo Nash proclaimed, “granting small concessions [to black Americans] . . . does not imply any intent on the part of the Federal Government to make the largest concession of all . . . to break down the pattern of social segregation.” Thus, administrators focused on inspiring black people with a sense of purpose while carefully stressing that racial animosity weighed heavily on the national rhetoric of democratic unity. War officials agreed that the major goal of state programs would be to underscore black American citizenship, but those officials disagreed about the methods they would employ. [13] Theodore M. Berry, a black lawyer from Cincinnati and a racial adviser to the OWI, articulated one approach:

A program of morale building can be conceived in two general phases which might roughly be termed as “superficial” and “fundamental.” The superficial phase would include the use of all techniques designed to stimulate and arouse patriotic fervor, such as parades, rallies, glorified heroes, posters, radio and motion picture appeals. The fundamental phase would include the utilization of all psychological techniques for molding public opinion in the basic ideas and thought involved in the purposes of the War and designed to eliminate divisive interests and unite all people in the prosecution of the War.[14]

In Berry’s view, the more extensive use of radio and film to “indicate the participation of the Negro in the war effort and American life” should accompany more overt political measures such as investigation and prosecution of the “mistreatment of Negro soldiers.” Berry suggested that the OWI should also press for a presidential repudiation of “the statements of any persons . . . who seek to incite racial feeling and prejudice.” Thus, while he understood the impact of more positive and frequent cultural representations of black Americans, Berry undoubtedly viewed such measures as one element within larger attempts toward racial reform. But war officials, in contrast, focused mainly on media-based programs to promote black inclusion. Berry warned of the limitations of these tactics, claiming that “a postage stamp with a picture of a Negro author or parades and music will not be enough to improve morale.” Black leaders such as Walter White and William Hastie, the former dean of Howard Law School and the first civilian aide on “Negro affairs” to the secretary of war, echoed Berry’s position. But most white war officials favored more symbolic cultural strategies that would not address permanent material or political improvements for black Americans.[15]

Tensions arising from the more radical viewpoints of black administrators such as Berry led to discussions concerning the racial composition of war information bureaucracies. Administrators in the War Department and the OWI proposed the idea of a “Negro deputy” or an agency to handle all aspects of the “Negro problem” that concerned the government. Eventually, both agencies rejected the idea of a separate “Negro ministry” on the basis that it would “itself be a segregation of a kind to which Negroes would object.” Instead, officials proposed an agency or individual that would handle the problems of all minority groups, since other ethnic groups, such as “Spanish Americans” and Jews, confronted “the same disabilities against which Negroes justly complain.” Furthermore, when considering whether a deputy handling minority problems should be white or black, administrators insisted that he be white: “If a Negro were selected his selection would advertise the individual as a Negro specialist—which would produce criticism from both Negroes and conservative whites.”[16]

Although suggestions of a separate bureau for “Negro affairs” were scorned, black people were targeted as a separate minority group in media-based public relations campaigns. And the appointment of a civilian aide on racial affairs demonstrates that state officials felt it necessary to have a black adviser on the Negro problem. Truman Gibson, who occupied that position, made the distinction that, although in the past the army had “avoided propagandizing particular groups,” by 1943 it had become necessary to provide “factual information” for each minority group whose members “come from clearly defined communities . . . with an affinity of blood and ideas.” Thus, as the OWI decided that every “radio, motion picture, poster, pamphlet . . . must have its Negro counter-part,” it quickly circulated plans to raise morale to other government agencies and cultural industries. [17] Radio in particular was targeted as a medium where black Americans were excluded:

Pictured here in July 1943, Truman Gibson, the civilian aide to the secretary of war, Col. Stanley J. Grogan, the acting director of the Bureau of Public Relations of the War Department, and Joe Louis discuss plans for an overseas tour by boxers who would put on exhibitions for American soldiers. Photograph by Acme Photo. Courtesy Bettmann/Corbis.

One of the most glaring errors has been the utter failure to use radio as a vehicle for reaching the Negroes. Negro people do not respond to “White programs” and “White” speeches. The only “White” person they listen to and believe in is the President, in whom they still have faith. . . .

. . . With the wealth of recognized talent available for cooperation in such government operated radio shows, this fact seems most deplorable.[18]

Discussions of motion pictures displayed similar attitudes, as OWI officials claimed, “Recent surveys show that Government propaganda pictures have been leaving the Negro people cold and unimpressed.” Officials scurried to find alternatives to this cultural void. They advocated radio programs featuring black soldiers, human interest stories in black magazines such as the Crisis, newsreels showing black military activity, and favorable articles in the white press about black experiences. These ideas and images were meant to feature black Americans without reference to inequality. In the minds of war officials, the very presence of black bodies and voices could demonstrate American racial liberalism, concentrating discussion on black achievements and steering the dialogue away from discrimination.[19]

To implement specific visions of black inclusion, war administrators first proposed new policies for the press—purportedly one of the biggest threats to black morale. Officials in the Office of Facts and Figures suggested that because white newspapers rarely published any news about black individuals, the black reader had to “turn to his own newspapers” such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, which often left him “isolated in his thoughts and actions.” Therefore, administrators directed newspapers to cover all black achievements extensively and to downplay any negative events, such as crime. While government agencies did not propose that press reports stir public outrage against racial inequality, they did issue guidelines on ways to avoid racial stereotypes and to “preserve dignity.” In one instance Fred Moore, the editor of the New York Age, alerted the Army Information Service that photos were being taken of black soldiers who were “forced to pose eating watermelon.” In response, the War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations (BPR) issued a report stating that “no group within the Army should be singled out for stories or pictures emphasizing racial or religious characteristics.” The BPR demanded that all photos have explanatory captions identifying all individuals in the photos, and it prohibited the quotation of black soldiers in dialect. Furthermore, the BPR issued a directive, based on a suggestion from the NAACP assistant secretary Roy Wilkins, that all writers capitalize the word Negro and use it consistently when describing black Americans. Stressing the need to respect certain requests of the black community, BPR administrator D. P. Page indicated that although the secretary of war “prefers to use the designation ‘colored,’ . . . it is our wish . . . to conform to the practice of leading Negro writers and publications.”[20]

While administrators in the OWI and the War Department had initially spoken of incorporating full coverage of black people into war publications, that goal was hardly fulfilled. Out of the hundreds of war posters produced by the OWI, Treasury Department, armed forces, and private industries, only a handful featured black individuals. And while there were photos of black soldiers, many of which were published in mainstream periodicals such as Life magazine, some, such as images of wounded men from segregated units, were frequently barred from publication by government censors. Picturing black men in uniform could serve a positive function in the black press, but in the white press it could arouse anger, particularly among southerners, who linked black military service to the unraveling of the racial status quo. As several white southerners charged the media with excessive coverage of black soldiers, damaging the “promotion of unity,” war officials walked a thin line in formulating images and programs.[21]

As war managers sought to maintain the tenuous balance among a diverse range of interests, the promotion of popular entertainers, athletes, and military heroes figured heavily in plans for raising black morale. The OWI racial adviser Milton Starr suggested the use of popular bands such as Cab Calloway’s and Jimmie Lunceford’s and stage and screen entertainers such as Ethel Waters, Bill Robinson, Eddie Rochester, and Paul Robeson; all “would have great value in any propaganda program.” Starr also advised that black military heroes such as Brig. Gen. Benjamin Davis and Dorie Miller be highlighted in pamphlets and promoted for public appearances. The OWI emphasized the need to focus on “prominent Negro names” that would have the greatest impact on black civilian and military audiences. Of course the “prominent Negro names” did not include political activists such as A. Philip Randolph or NAACP secretary White, who publicly challenged the racial status quo. The distinction between popular and political black figures was made quite explicitly. As Starr wrote, “It might be well to ask the question as to who would draw the biggest audience, Joe Louis or Walter White. The answer is obvious.”[22]

War Officials Salute G.I. Joe Louis
Indeed, no project or individual played a greater role in war morale and propaganda than the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis. As arguably the most famous black celebrity, Joe Louis had come to embody the values of patriotism, humility, and sacrifice by the early 1940s. This was due in large part to Louis’s soft-spoken, polite demeanor, which white individuals contrasted favorably with that of the last renowned black heavyweight champion, the controversial Jack Johnson. Johnson, who held the championship from 1908 to 1915, offended both white and black people by his ostentatious living, confrontational manner, and affinity for white women. Antagonizing both his opponents and the press, Johnson attempted to “defy white standards of behavior for African Americans.” Some black people viewed him as an embarrassment, while some white people used him as proof of black savagery and uncivility.[23]

To avoid the negative publicity that had plagued Johnson’s career, Louis’s boxing managers told him that he must exhibit not only strength in the ring but also “good behavior” outside it. When Louis was only nineteen, the black manager John Roxborough brought him into his home, instructing him in proper dress, manners, and nutrition. Roxborough also created a set of “commandments” for Louis; these circulated in many newspapers once Louis began his professional career:

1. He was never to have his picture taken along with a white woman.
2. He would never go into a nightclub alone.
3. There would be no soft fights.
4. There would be no fixed fights.
5. He was never to gloat over a fallen opponent.
6. He was to keep a “dead pan” in front of the cameras.
7. He was to live and fight clean. [24]

Louis’s adherence to those rules shaped his public image during his professional career. White praise of his athletic abilities, largely stemming from his good behavior, gave Louis an unprecedented credibility as a black boxer. His good sportsmanship and nonconfrontational demeanor generally led white people to accept and eventually to applaud his career as a boxing champion.[25]

For black Americans, Louis became a symbol of promise. In his article “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite,” Richard Wright evoked the incredible jubilation brought on by a Louis victory, not just by his refutation of white supremacy, but by the feelings that stirred in black men and women everywhere: “From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out.” Many black people perceived Louis’s accomplishment as a sign that they could triumph over all forms of oppression. Unlike some white people, who viewed the fights in the context of Louis’s rise to boxing superstardom, many black individuals saw themselves and their futures in the Brown Bomber.[26]

Black and white Americans particularly delighted in Louis’s defeat of the German Max Schmeling in 1938 (Germans had hailed the latter’s 1936 victory over Louis as a sign of Aryan superiority). On June 22 the Brown Bomber demolished Schmeling in the first round, elevating the fight into one of the most famous events in boxing history. The New York Times described the way Louis “polished off the Black Uhlan from the Rhine,” stressing the “truly representative” racial makeup of the crowd. The black press discussed improving race relations, but it pronounced Louis’s victory even more significantly a win for America. The Pittsburgh Courier portrayed Louis as first “son of America, son of Alabama, Black American.” Even the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, in a special column in the Pittsburgh Courier, declared that white reactions to the fight displayed a way of thinking about race “differently and more sanely” than twenty years ago. Yet some were questioning such proxy politics. While he characterized Louis as a “living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily” and had always applauded Louis’s impact on the black community, Wright indicated the need for more direct political action by 1938. “Negroes would have preferred that that refutation [of racial inferiority] could have been made in some form other than pugilism,” he asserted.[27]

In celebrating Louis’s win, some white newspapers still could not avoid minstrelesque depictions of the boxing champion. One Washington Post columnist wrote, “Joe Louis, the lethargic chicken eating young colored boy, reverted to his dreaded role of the ‘brown bomber.'” The Chicago Tribune championed Louis’s remarkable victory, but it conveyed the message that Schmeling was the more “cunning” of the two fighters, even though Louis had “greater physical weapons.” Other articles written in the following years continued to demean Louis’s intellectual capacities. A 1940 Life magazine article emphasized Louis’s passive manner, claiming that “far from being ferocious, Louis is bored by fighting. He does it because has been told to and does not know how to do anything else.” Echoing similar sentiments, a 1941 Time magazine article also stressed Louis’s ignorance, decrying his limitations as a race leader. In the opinion of the Time journalist, whites viewed Louis only as a “lugubrious fellow” and a “mischievous child.”[28]

It would take a central war-linked event, the celebrated Navy Relief Society benefit fight in 1942, for white journalists to eschew racial stereotyping and for the government fully to realize Louis’s potential as a war symbol. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in which more than three thousand Americans were killed, the Navy Relief Society sought a high-profile charity event to aid the families of those who died in the destruction. Although the navy was notorious among the armed forces for its racial caste order onshore and off, Louis eagerly agreed to the fight as a patriotic gesture, stating, “‘Aint fighting for nothing, I’m fighting for my country.” The NAACP secretary White viewed the forthcoming fight with a certain equivocation, asserting, “one wonders what will be in Joe Louis’s mind . . . knowing that neither he nor any other of his 13 million American Negro fellow-citizens can serve in the Navy except as menials.” Others in the black press expressed outright opposition to Louis’s decision to fight. A writer for the New York–based Amsterdam News claimed that Louis was the “sacrificial goat” in white propaganda, having much more to lose than his opponent. Furthermore, an article in the Baltimore Afro-American reported that many black people refused to attend the fight in protest of the navy’s oppressive policies. Yet, as always, black opinion was not uniform. Many in the Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American supported the fight, deeming Louis a “most unselfish patriot” and suggesting that the event might “shame the U.S. Navy into somewhat lowering the color bars.”[29]

Louis’s stardom skyrocketed after his victory over Baer. Hailed as the best fighter ever by the New York Post and the “real champion” by the Washington Post, Louis was regarded by the white press as not only a genuine patriot but also a credit to the boxing profession. In a speech about Louis, the former presidential candidate Wendell Willkie exclaimed that Louis’s performance made it impossible for him “to see how any American can think of discrimination in terms of race, creed, or color.” Some white reporters, such as Paul Gallico, made a significant change in their portrayals of Louis. Gallico, who in 1935 had called Louis a “calmly savage Ethiopian,” in 1942 claimed that Louis had finally “found his soul” and had sacrificed as a “simple good American.” For Gallico, “Citizen [Joe Louis] Barrow” now was an emblem of honesty, simplicity, and decency—someone whom both whites and blacks should admire.[30]

Although some had initially questioned Louis’s decision to participate in the fight, the black press emphasized the positive impact Louis’s victory had on white racial attitudes. The Pittsburgh Courier provided the reactions of the Boxing Writers Association, which professed to Louis, “you are entitled to the highest title known to the American people . . . Joe, you are an American gentleman.” The Baltimore Afro-American reported the enthusiasm of former New York mayor James Walker, who described Louis’s patriotism as the equivalent of “laying a red rose on Abe Lincoln’s grave.” The Amsterdam News published the words of a Michigan senator who asserted that Louis’s “Sportsmanship, unequaled physical endowments, retained and increased by clean living are now crowned with extreme generosity. Joe Louis is a citizen of whom Michigan and the nation are proud.”[31]

These reactions to Louis resonated deeply among state administrators who were evaluating his role as a wartime symbol. Officials in the War Department’s Morale Branch, the NAACP, and Eleanor Roosevelt had discussed Louis’s military service as early as September 1941, yet as plans developed in December for the Navy Relief Society benefit fight, it became evident that a postfight army induction would buttress public opinion. Thus, two days after the navy relief fight, Louis volunteered for the army, reporting for duty at Camp Upton on Long Island. F. H. Osborn, chief of the Morale Branch, asserted that like “Martin of the Stock Exchange and Winthrop Rockefeller,” Joe Louis would undergo a thirteen-week training course without special privileges. After the training Louis was to receive a first lieutenant’s commission, but he refused it, stating that he did not have the training for an officer position and asking to be around other men with backgrounds that were similar to his own. Although this gesture commanded further public praise for Louis’s generosity, the army did not want Louis to serve as an “ordinary private” and thus ordered him to serve within the Morale Branch. Black and white leaders agreed that Louis’s “fine character” indicated “what a clean athlete stands for, irrespective of race.” In addition, unlike the renowned fighter Jack Dempsey, who had avoided service in World War I, Louis would prove that his celebrity status did not preclude his duties as an American citizen.[32]

Once Louis joined the army, Morale Branch officials held numerous meetings concerning his activities. Chief F. H. Osborn was a eugenicist who believed that “social engineering” through film and other media could “teach liberal reaffirmations of American social beliefs.” To further such democratic goals, war officials consistently emphasized Louis’s cultural significance, asserting, “The Army and the government have a tremendous propaganda asset in Joe Louis. To a great majority of the Negroes he appears almost as a god. The possibilities for using him are almost unlimited.” Even Mary McLeod Bethune, a racial militant of long standing, advised Osborn along similar lines: “there is no one person in the world that men would rather see in action than Joe Louis. He is the greatest single drawing attraction that there is, and he is everybody’s favorite.” Likewise, Walter White recognized Louis’s prominence as a national figure, asking Louis for a photo of himself to place “along with the pictures . . . of other distinguished Americans who are my friends.” Memos circulated describing various possible presentations of Joe Louis on posters and in pamphlets, radio shows, and movies. Yet, in his appearances and images, Louis did not publicly advocate racial equality or even denounce racial discrimination. Louis was to promote patriotism and racial goodwill while symbolizing black potential and black American citizenship.[33]

In September 1943, four black boxers—Joe Louis, George C. Nicholson, Walker Smith (better known as Sugar Ray Robinson), and George J. Wilson—formed a troupe under the army’s Special Service Division to tour army camps in the United States and abroad. The boxing tour furnished both entertainment and athletic training to audiences of soldiers, yet it also could diminish racism by exposing white troops to black men who not only promoted sportsmanship and teamwork but also demonstrated incredible athleticism. In her proposal for the boxing troupe, Bethune had envisioned soldiers’ responses:

Can you picture the reaction a solider would have to see Joe Louis and other great fighters fly across thousands of miles of enemy infested lands and waters, just to put on a show for them? Just picture the feeling it would give a man to see Joe Louis in action anywhere or under any conditions. . . . That will create a fine reaction and make a soldier glad to be fighting for a country so thoughtful of him.[34]

This boxing tour fit larger ideas about improving race relations through athletic activities. In a letter to William Hastie, Truman Gibson’s more militant predecessor as civilian aide to the secretary of war, Edwin Henderson, head of the Department of Health and Physical Education in the District of Columbia public schools, outlined the benefits of recreational activities among all units in training camps, regardless of race. To ameliorate the existing hostile and “non-communicative attitudes” between black and white soldiers, Henderson proposed a series of individual and team events that could both improve morale and emphasize democratic values through healthy competition. Here athletics could both invalidate “the myth of race inferiority” and provide soldiers with “a better understanding of what we are fighting for.” Yet, nowhere did Henderson’s report suggest that such interracial recreational activities could promote the eventual integration of the armed forces. Thus, athletic activities could serve as a rehearsal for black and white soldiers who would soon be forced to cooperate in war. Competitions from Ping-Pong to football existed as “safe” forms of interracial contact that neatly dodged the issue of racial discrimination in the military. [35]

Both civilians and soldiers watch as Joe Louis fights Elza Thompson in an open-air exhibition fight in Britain on June 1, 1944. Photograph by Wide World Photo. Courtesy AP/Wide World Photos. National Archives, RG 208 PU-120V-54.

In Louis’s forty-six months of army duty, he fought ninety-six exhibitions in the United States, England, France, and Italy. The tour gave Louis the opportunity to witness the racism and poor conditions within black army camps. Louis’s most public challenge to racial discrimination was his refusal to fight or speak in front of segregated audiences, indicating that the boxing tour was “not for any one race group.” Yet Louis was not immune to segregation. After using a telephone and sitting on a bench in a “white” waiting room in an Alabama bus depot, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson were confronted by police; when they protested, they were taken away by police to a nearby military post. This incident, which was publicized in both the white and the black press, embarrassed the army, which reissued an existing directive against segregated buses in army camps. In England Louis was told to sit in a “special section” of a theater with other black G.I.’s; Louis confronted the manager, who recognized him and apologized, claiming that he had received orders from an American military commander.[36]

Despite those unfortunate circumstances, the tour was extremely successful and well received. Carroll Fitzgerald, the officer who was in charge of the tour in 1943, indicated that Louis’s inspiring words to soldiers described the values of “physical fitness and Americanism.” After the troupe’s visit to a New Orleans base, Maj. Harrie Pearson commented that Louis exerted “a most beneficial effect on both white and colored enlisted personnel. Sgt. Barrow warrants commendation for the friendly and interesting manner with which he conducted his personal appearances.” Yet, not all officers issued such glowing reports. Maj. Robert Lough complained that the troupe had missed the train and arrived late, disturbing the plans of officers and servicemen and confirming Lough’s opinion that the tour was a “waste and [an] operation unbecoming the military.” Lough scolded the Special Service Division for giving Louis and his fellow boxers special privileges. In response, Theodore Bank of the Special Service Division assured Lough that the boxers would be subject to the same military discipline as any other soldiers while agreeing with Lough that the tour was a frivolous misuse of bureaucratic manpower.[37]

Other forms of criticism came from journalists who argued that Louis’s role as a “money raiser” and “morale builder” would contradict Louis’s “conduct and remarks to date.” Chiding the army for preventing Louis from encountering the “realities . . . and normal risks of war” as a soldier, one columnist concluded that American morale would indeed be weakened if the army prevented Louis from participating in combat. Yet, these opinions were in the minority; official correspondence indicated an overwhelming support for Louis’s activities. The flow of positive reports led administrators to believe that they were successfully boosting morale and curbing racial animosities. [38]

Joe Louis and his fellow soldiers at the Cavalry Replacement Center at Fort Riley, Kansas. Photograph by Press Association, Inc. Courtesy AP/Wide World Photos. National Archives, RG 208 PU-120V-5.

The black press echoed this support, as it documented all of Louis’s events during his army service. When Louis was first inducted, black newspapers provided the details of his uniform size, physical examination, and training schedule, particularly emphasizing that Louis was like any other soldier. In reporting that Louis was “asking no favors and getting none,” marching in the rain and performing squad drills, papers such as the Baltimore Afro-American maintained that Louis could easily shed his sense of celebrity. Articles also described Louis’s eagerness to help his fellow soldiers with daily chores, building a sense of camaraderie among his “buddies.” Throughout Louis’s army tenure, the black press praised charitable actions he undertook on behalf of the war effort. As Louis auctioned off the boxing gloves that he had worn during a famed fight with Billy Conn in order to promote war bonds, the Pittsburgh Courier claimed that Louis “once again is making a personal sacrifice for which he is fighting.” And it was not just the black press that heralded Louis’s patriotism throughout the war; the New York Times, Life, and the Daily Worker all reported on the boxing exhibition tour, stressing Louis’s efforts to build “racial good will.” As Louis and the other boxers visited hospitals and camps, spending countless hours with both black and white soldiers, the emphasis in presentation of Louis’s public persona shifted from his individuality as an athlete to his relationship with others.[39]

While newspaper reports did not mention Louis’s feelings about racial inequality, his autobiography attests to his dedication to eliminating racial barriers in the military. Although Louis refrained from addressing controversial racial issues in public, he waged a private campaign against discrimination. When his fellow soldier Jackie Robinson was prohibited from playing football and baseball on the camp team at Fort Riley, Kansas, Louis demanded of Brig. Gen. Donald Robinson that such restrictions be lifted. As a result, Robinson and other black players were allowed on the previously all-white baseball and football teams, which led to the integration of many sports at other army camps, even in states such as Georgia and Virginia. Louis also spoke on behalf of Robinson and other black enlistees who were being denied admission to officer candidate school. After much persistence and efforts to go through several military channels, Louis persuaded Truman Gibson to investigate the matter—as a result, fifteen black men were eventually admitted. In addition, Louis gave financial aid to many black soldiers he met during his service so that they could provide loved ones with hospital care or funerals.[40]

For many black servicemen, Louis’s altruism and patriotism made him an important race leader, even in the absence of a more overt stance against racial oppression. During the war, Louis demonstrated to many black individuals that he had overcome discrimination and could act as a mediator between black and white Americans. As word of mouth spread about the boxing troupe, soldiers requested Louis’s attendance. Pvt. F. K. Wint declared that Louis’s appearance at his air force base in Greensboro, North Carolina, would be significant since the post was “undergoing a great change from white personnel to colored.” Pvt. Jimmy Bivens described his elation when he heard that the boxing tour was in effect, stating that morale activities offered black soldiers greater opportunities than the “common labor” at training camps. Bivens, a black fighter himself, pleaded with Gibson to allow him to be part of his own boxing troupe. Although both those requests were denied, the letters indicate that black soldiers saw in Louis a sign of hope that racial conditions could improve.[41]

While pleased with the positive response to Louis’s military tour, administrators in the War Department still reviewed Louis’s appearance at certain events with the utmost scrutiny. Truman Gibson consistently denied requests for Louis to attend politically charged functions. Rejecting the possibility of Louis’s appearance at a rally in Baltimore in response to the 1943 Detroit riot, Gibson indicated that “because of the large number of such requests they will all be unfavorably considered.” The Morale Branch chief F. H. Osborn reacted with hostility to such proposals, including one for Louis to speak at a “giant demonstration and rally of racial unity” in New York City. Perhaps administrators prevented Louis from attending some functions due to the sheer number of requests and scheduling conflicts. Yet officials undoubtedly feared those situations where Louis could be perceived as an advocate for racial reform. This correspondence between political organizations that viewed Louis as a racially charged symbol and those who aimed to keep Louis’s presence depoliticized displays both the struggle to circumscribe iconography and the difficulty of controlling cultural interpretation.[42]

Administrators also attempted to preserve Louis’s image as a moral and upstanding man. In one instance, Lt. Mildred Osby, a black member of the Women’s Army Corps, requested an assignment as a secretarial assistant for the boxing tour, listing such references as A. Philip Randolph and professing her “courteous” demeanor and her ability to act “under military discipline and control.” Yet Truman Gibson denied her request, indicating that male officers would be accompanying the Louis tour. Gibson assured Osby, “I am afraid that even your own resistance, built up over years of battling life on your own, would be melted away by the Sargeant’s charm with the ladies. You would be even more disturbed emotionally by such an exposure.” While Louis’s philandering was not publicized in the press, it was widely known among his managers and friends such as Gibson, who tried to maintain Louis’s public image as a faithful husband to his wife, Marva Trotter. Although Gibson professed to be protecting Osby, in keeping her away from Louis’s allegedly irresistible “charm” he was primarily curbing any behavior that could tarnish Louis’s heroic stature.[43]

At a dinner for the Navy Relief Society on May 10, 1942, Joe Louis, in his army uniform, made a speech stating, “We gonna do our part, and we will win, because we are on God’s side.” This quickly became a widely circulated propaganda slogan, appearing on one of the most famous posters of the war era. In this poster Pvt. Joe Louis, a gun in his hands and sword under his arm, threatens an invisible enemy with a piercing glare. Whether or not Louis would ever use that gun or sword in combat was irrelevant to war officials. They predicted that Americans would both recognize the stolid expression that Louis had once given his opponents in the ring (which he would now give to a new enemy) and identify with the sentimental, religious rhetoric printed at the bottom of the page. [44] A Madison Avenue advertiser named Carl Byoir, however, interpreted the “God’s side” phrase quite differently. In his poem, “Joe Louis Named the War,” which appeared in the widely circulated magazine Collier’s, Byoir wrote:

Maybe those words were stamped
On your great grandfather’s heart,
And maybe they were burned into his soul,
And maybe he came to love America
And to cherish its freedoms
More than some people who just inherited them.
And so, maybe you just felt what he felt
And so you named the war
This is God’s War . . . [45]

This poster featuring Joe Louis was one of the few—and consequently one of the most famous—images of a black man in World War II propaganda. Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 44-PA-87.

Despite the state’s effort to commodify Louis, Byoir’s words illuminated the multiple meanings of Louis’s famed patriotism. For Byoir, Louis was in some ways reconciling the double consciousness W. E. B. Du Bois had described—the tension of possessing both black and American identity. Byoir recognized that the war exposed the inconsistency of blackness and Americanness, as well as the legitimacy of black ancestry; his poem elevated Louis above propaganda. Whether or not Byoir’s interpretation of Louis’s statement resonated in the minds of most white Americans, he nonetheless exposed the fluidity of Louis’s symbolic character. The poem’s opening—”Joe, you named the war/I don’t think you knew/That you were naming the war,/But you named it”—testifies to the porousness of culture, infusing Louis with political substance even as he is allegedly not attuned to it. Thus, although the public image of Joe Louis was meant to encourage black patriotism, his words urged some white Americans such as Byoir to question the orthodoxy of white nationalism.

The poster itself also signaled a significant departure from wartime racial imagery. As the scholar George Roeder argued in his evaluation of censored wartime photos (which were recently made public), the “God’s side” poster was a rare depiction of a black man in an aggressive pose. Many photographs of black soldiers, even those who had been wounded, were censored by the government, largely due to southern accusations that the black press was trying to overemphasize the role of black units in the war. Posters featuring black workers, which were few and far between, stressed racial harmony and sacrifice, downplaying any notions of racial militancy. Louis, on the other hand, as an established war hero with no record of public opposition to the racial status quo, transcended the “acceptable” imagery of black men. The idea of armed black men, long detested by many white Americans, was softened by Louis’s established record of deracialized patriotism. Representing a soldier prepared for combat—one of the strongest symbols of American masculinity—Louis was able to subvert embedded racial ideologies. And as the government propagated this image, circulating the poster to hundreds of cities, it blurred the color line by featuring Joe Louis—detached from racial politics—in one of the most politically suggestive stances.[46]

Like the “God’s side” poster, the 1944 film The Negro Soldier endowed the image of Joe Louis with political meaning. The film, used as a mandatory orientation film for almost all black and white army trainees by the spring of 1944, displayed the countless achievements of black soldiers and civilians. Carlton Moss, the prolific black writer, producer, and actor, wrote the film script and played the role of a preacher. The film begins in a black church as the preacher speaks to a well-dressed middle-class congregation, praising the efforts of black soldiers. In the midst of commending individual servicemen, some of whom are seated in the congregation, the preacher pauses to recall witnessing the Louis-Schmeling fight at Madison Square Garden in 1938. As the solemn church setting shifts to jarring footage of the fight, the preacher proudly exclaims, “An American first won a victory,” but then warns that the boxing match would not be the “final victory.” Louis and Schmeling would be matched again, in a “far greater arena and for much greater stakes.” The preacher describes the war as a fight “not between man and man but between nation and nation. A fight for the real championship of the world, to determine which way of life shall survive, their way or our way.”[47]

Both black audiences and black political organizations praised the film. Thomas Webster, the executive secretary of the Kansas City Urban League, exclaimed, “Every citizen, white and black should see this picture, for embodied in it are all the principles for which we are now fighting.” Writing for the Chicago Defender, Langston Hughes stated, “it is the most important film of Negro activities yet brought to the screen . . . it portrays, without the customary Hollywood stereotypes, the heroic role of the Negro throughout.” Although the film veered from even the slightest hint of racial inequality (the Civil War sequence did not mention slavery), that omission did not completely diminish the film’s powerful portrayal of black history. White and especially black audiences did not need a film to alert them to the existence of discrimination, but perhaps they did need publicly to celebrate the magnitude of black progress, in spite of the persistence of racism. Certainly a more realistic depiction of black life in the United States would have more effectively addressed black grievances in the military and on the home front; yet given the War Department’s precarious task of racial management, the film managed to hold blacks in high esteem without disrupting the racial status quo.[48]

Yet it was the reference to the Louis-Schmeling fight, which sets the framework for the entire film, that most directly politicized The Negro Soldier. The film’s black congregation is directed to equate Max Schmeling with German savagery; reading from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the preacher warns his congregation of German plans to exterminate “inferior” peoples. Black military audiences, particularly those servicemen in southern training camps, were, however, more familiar with American racial ideologies. Although the preacher refers to Joe Louis as an American, rather than a black man, the footage of the fight clearly demonstrates that a black individual can obliterate even the most bigoted white opponent. Perhaps a subtle call for black mobilization on Carlton Moss’s part, this opening scene emphasizes black superiority, if only in the athletic arena. Furthermore, footage of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics indicates that the War Department did not hesitate to emphasize black strength over white competitors in sporting events with international significance. Whether black audiences viewed these scenes primarily in terms of international rivalry is not revealed in reviews; many black people, however, probably interpreted them as they did most Louis fights—in highly charged racial terms.[49]

In September 1945, Joe Louis received the Legion of Merit award for his contributions to the army. Praising Louis for going far beyond the duties “that were reasonably expected or demanded of him,” Fred Maloy, the officer in charge of the Joe Louis tour, hailed the success of Louis’s boxing exhibitions, reporting that attendance at fights had exceeded existing records of attendance at films, theatrical performances, or appearances by other sport personalities. Maloy asserted that Louis’s presence ameliorated race relations, causing white soldiers to evaluate their black counterparts more fairly. Gibson expedited the presentation of the award, making Louis’s discharge possible at a time when demobilization was slow for many soldiers. The Legion of Merit signaled the apogee of Louis’s role as an American icon. Although his claim to that role was unstable at the beginning of his boxing career in the 1930s, his wartime actions had fulfilled it. Louis was now unquestionably a model American citizen.[50]

The symbol of Louis did not directly address discrimination or segregation. Nor did Joe Louis himself become a spokesman for racial equality. The issue of low black morale unified liberal and conservative bureaucracies to develop a common racial agenda, and the precarious endeavor of constructing official culture left little space for dissent. Subject to the demands of a highly politicized state apparatus, managers attempted to circumscribe the political nature of Louis’s iconography while wrestling with the tensions of cultural administration and production. Yet Louis was not merely a pawn of white administrators, as he used the tactics he had honed throughout his boxing career to speak on behalf of other black Americans and to lift the morale of all American soldiers. Louis easily incorporated himself into the state’s racial strategy because he understood the possibilities of race advancement through incremental white acceptance. Although he advocated black advancement symbolically, Louis nonetheless contributed to material gains as he aided individual black soldiers and later promoted black entrepreneurship, education, youth clubs, and neighborhood revitalization.

Administrators such as Theodore Berry may have not succeeded in initiating the breakdown of segregation and racial inequality, but the programs developed by the OWI and the War Department did have significant political implications. Certainly the construction of Joe Louis as an American hero was an effort to propagate particular notions of blackness, but it was also a public recognition that black people could not be ignored as American citizens. As white officials facilitated an interracial dialogue over cultural development, they significantly incorporated both black opinion and black participation in their morale-boosting campaign. Furthermore, the portrayals and actions of Joe Louis offered a subtly politicized commentary on racial issues, despite the intentions of war managers. State officials may have manufactured portrayals of black inclusion in contradiction to the reality of American discrimination, yet they could not always control the meanings that symbols conveyed. Thus this solution to the Negro problem illustrated how political expediency shaped the definition of racial liberalism, producing a narrative that was both sanitized and racially charged.

Yet the construction of a black American hero would only yield meaning as long as it spoke to the aspirations of most black Americans. And Louis understood the limits of his own iconography, particularly amid rising black militancy. After the war, a new Harlem restaurant was named after him, but the business did not last long. Speculating on this failure, Louis declared, “You know, black people aren’t gonna patronize something just because your name’s up there; black people around this time were beginning to get more aware of themselves. . . . they got killed in that war, they helped build those ships and planes. . . . Don’t put no jive restaurant on them just because the name says ‘The Joe Louis Restaurant.'”[51] During the postwar period, black Americans fought for their rights as full citizens, forgoing the restraint that Louis clung to during his ascending career. After World War II, heroes would not fade but would emerge within a larger political mobilization for racial justice. Politics could no longer be addressed by culture alone.

Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff will receive a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in January 2003. She has been a predoctoral fellow at the National Museum of American History. This essay received the Louis Pelzer Memorial Award for 2002.

I would like to thank the Smithsonian Institution and the Wellesley College Thomas Jefferson Fellowship for providing funding for this research. I am grateful to the manuscript staffs at the National Archives and the Library of Congress for their expertise. The Department of History and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia have generously paid the permission costs for the images in this article. This essay has also benefited from the suggestions of session participants during annual conferences of the American Studies Association and the American Historical Association. For their insightful comments, I would like to thank Nelson Lichtenstein, Charlie McGovern, Grace Hale, Eric Lott, George Roeder, Eileen Boris, Joanne Meyerowitz, the Pelzer Prize committee, and the staff of the Journal of American History. In addition, I appreciate the enormous support and suggestions of my colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution. Special thanks to Jim Lamey for his incredible generosity.

Readers may contact Sklaroff at <[email protected]>.</[email protected]>

1. On the fight, see Chris Mead, Champion Joe Louis: Black Hero in White America (New York, 1985), 212. Walter White to Arthur Capper, Jan. 2, 1942, box A405, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Papers (Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.).

2. Milton Starr, “Report on Negro Morale,” 1942, box 6, entry ED, Records of the Office of War Information, RG 208 (National Archives, College Park, Md.). For the impact of southern congressional voting on New Deal policy, see Ira Katznelson, Kim Geiger, and Daniel Kryder, “Limiting Liberalism: The Southern Veto in Congress, 1933–1950,” Political Science Quarterly, 108 (Summer 1993), 283–306.

3. See Richard M. Dalfiume, Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces: Fighting on Two Fronts, 1939–1953 (Columbia, Mo., 1969); John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture during World War II (New York, 1976); Neil A.Wynn, The Afro-American and the Second World War (London, 1979); Daniel Kryder, Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State during World War II (New York, 2000); Barbara Dianne Savage, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938–1948 (Chapel Hill, 1999); and Thomas Cripps, Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era (New York, 1993).

4. For more on what I define as official culture, including the continuation of New Deal cultural policies in war agencies, see Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, “Ambivalent Inclusion: The State, Race, and Official Culture, 1930–1950” (Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia, 2003).

5. Dalfiume, Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces, 44–63; Wynn, Afro-American and the Second World War, 21–38.

6. For a detailed analysis of the Office of the War Information (OWI), see Allan M. Winkler, The Politics of Propaganda: The Office of War Information, 1942–1945 (New Haven, 1978); Sydney Weinberg, “What to Tell America: The Writer’s Quarrel in the Office of War Information,” Journal of American History, 55 (June 1968), 73–89; and Richard W. Steele, “Preparing the Public for War: Efforts to Establish a National Propaganda Agency, 1940–41,” American Historical Review, 75 (Oct. 1970), 1640–53. For OWI’s racial ideologies in regard to motion pictures, see Cripps, Making Movies Black, 35–101; Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (Berkeley, 1987), 84–90, 178–84; and Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York, 1993), 205–26.

7. The Office of Facts and Figures (OFF) was incorporated into OWI in June 1942 under the direction of Elmer Davis. Archibald MacLeish served as assistant director in charge of the Policy Development Branch. A. Philip Randolph to Henry L. Stimson, June 4, 1941, box 3, entry 99, Records of the Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War, RG 107 (National Archives, College Park, Md.); Archibald MacLeish to Francis Biddle, April 24, 1942, entry 7, box 3, Office of War Information Records. For statements on race by MacLeish, see Archibald MacLeish: Reflections, ed. Bernard Drabeck and Helen Ellis (Amherst, 1986), 131, 165–66. For MacLeish’s role as librarian of Congress and OFF director, particularly his ideologies concerning propaganda, see Brett Gary, The Nervous Liberals: Propaganda Anxieties from World War I to the Cold War (New York, 1999), 131–73. For a biography, see Scott Donaldson, Archibald MacLeish: An American Life (Boston, 1992).

8. Bureau of Intelligence, Office of War Information, “Survey of Intelligence Materials, Supplement to Survey No. 25,” July 14, 1942, p. 10, box 52, Archibald MacLeish Papers (Manuscript Division, Library of Congress); Bureau of Special Services, Office of War Information, “Opinions about Inter-Racial Tension,” Aug. 25, 1943, p. 4, box 230, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Armed Forces Headquarters to the Office of the Undersecretary of War, June 16, 1944, box 236, entry 141, ibid.

9. Philleo Nash to Leo Rosten, “The Need for a Negro Policy within OWI,” Jan. 8, 1943, box 40, entry E-27, Office of War Information Records.

10. John Levirt Kelly to George A. Barnes, May 18, 1942, box 3, entry 5, Office of War Information Records; Caroline Blake to MacLeish, Feb. 14, 1942, ibid.; John Hammond to Agnes Meyer, Jan. 28, 1945, box 181, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records.

11. Lillian Smith, “Portrait of the Deep South—Speaking to Negroes on Morale,” n.d., box 240, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records.

12. Roy Wilkins to MacLeish, March 27, 1942, box 3, entry 5, Office of War Information Records; W. H. Jernagin to the U.S. Attorney General, April 20, 1942, box 223, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records.

13. Robert Huse, “Minutes of the Board Meeting,” Nov. 14, 1942, box 53, MacLeish Papers; Milton Starr, “Suggestions for Improvement of Negro Morale,” n.d., box 6, entry 3D, Office of War Information Records; Nash to Rosten, “The Need for a Negro Policy within OWI.”

14. Theodore M. Berry to Elmer Davis, July 24, 1942, box 8, entry 1, Office of War Information Records.

15. Ibid. On the views of William Hastie and Walter White, see William Hastie to the Under Secretary of War, Sept. 22, 1942, box 3, entry 99, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Kryder, Divided Arsenal, 145–46; and White to Elmer Davis, Dec. 8, 1942, Jan. 15, 1943, box 8, entry 1, Office of War Information Records.

16. Eugene Katz to Gardner Cowles, “A Deputy for the Negro Problem?,” Feb. 8, 1943, box 40, entry 27, Office of War Information Records; Lawrence Cramer to James Landis, May 22, 1942, box 1079, entry 222, ibid.; Katz to Cowles, “A Deputy for the Negro Problem?”

17. Truman Gibson to A. D. Surles, Feb. 9, 1943, box 184, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; “Present Tensions Involved in the Negro Question,” [1942], box 1079, entry 222, Office of War Information Records.

18. “Present Tensions Involved in the Negro Question.” For a study of both private and public uses of radio for racial programming during the war years, see Savage, Broadcasting Freedom. Other studies of radio’s significance during the war years include Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952 (Minneapolis, 1997), 230–70; and William Barlow, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio (Philadelphia, 1999), 67–89.

19. “Present Tensions Involved in the Negro Question.”

20. William Alexander to John Herrick, March 20, 1942, box 10, entry 7, Office of War Information Records; “The Negro in America: Outline of Public Relations Campaign to Better Negro-White Relations,” prepared by Subcommittee of Pro-Democracy Organizations Round Table, March 10, 1942, box 3, entry 5, ibid.; Bureau of Public Relations, memo, 1941, box 183, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Fred Moore to Frank Pearson, July 7, 1941, ibid.; Hastie to Moore, Aug. 9, 1941, ibid.; D. P. Page to Hastie, June 23, 1941, ibid.

21. George H. Roeder Jr., The Censored War: American Visual Experience during World War II (New Haven, 1993), 76–79, 45. For visual representations of black Americans during World War II see William L. Bird Jr. and Harry R. Rubenstein, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (New York, 1998).

22. Starr, “Report on Negro Morale.” Starr also promoted the employment of black celebrities in a memo, Starr, “Suggestions for Improvement of Negro Morale.” For more on this policy, see “Program for War Information to Negroes,” 1943, box 40, entry E-27, Office of War Information Records; and Berry to Ulric Bell, May 25, 1942, box 3, entry 5, ibid.

23. Most biographies of Joe Louis focus on the details of boxing matches. Few discuss the political implications of Louis’s career within a larger historical context or make use of several significant archival collections. This essay benefits from those studies in understanding Louis’s relationships with his family, managers, and other celebrities. On Jack Johnson in relation to Louis, see William L. Van Deburg, Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960–1980 (Chicago, 1997), 92–95; Gerald Astor, “. . . And a Credit to His Race”: The Hard Life and Times of Joseph Louis Barrow (New York, 1974), 47–58; and Mead, Champion Joe Louis, 19–30.

24. Mead, Champion Joe Louis, 52.

25. For descriptions of press reporting, see Jeffrey T. Sammons, “Boxing as a Reflection of Society: The Southern Reaction to Joe Louis,” Journal of Popular Culture, 16 (Spring 1983), 23–33; William H. Wiggins Jr., “Boxing’s Sambo Twins: Racial Stereotypes in Jack Johnson and Joe Louis Newspaper Cartoons, 1908–1938,” Journal of Sport History, 15 (Winter 1988), 242–53; Al-Tony Gilmore, “The Myth, Legend, and Folklore of Joe Louis: The Impression of Sport on Society,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 82 (Summer 1983), 256–68; and Dominic J. Capeci Jr. and Martha Wilkerson, “Multifarious Hero: Joe Louis, American Society, and Race Relations during World Crisis, 1935–1945,” Journal of Sport History, 10 (Winter 1983), 5–25.

26. Richard Wright, “Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite,” New Masses, Oct. 8, 1935, pp. 18–19.

27. New York Times, June 23, 1938, p. 1; Pittsburgh Courier, June 25, 1938, pp. 2, 17; Richard Wright, “High Tide in Harlem,” New Masses, July 5, 1938, pp. 18–20.

28. Washington Post, June 23, 1938, p. 18; Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1938, p. 18; Earl Brown, “Joe Louis: The Champion, Idol of His Race, Sets a Good Example of Conduct,” Life, June 17, 1940, p. 55; “Black Moses,” Time, Sept. 29, 1941, p. 64.

29. Mead, Champion Joe Louis, 210; Walter White to Editor, New York Herald Tribune, Dec. 15, 1941, box A405, NAACP Papers; Amsterdam News, Jan. 10, 1942, p. 14; Baltimore Afro-American, Jan. 13, 1942, p. 22; ibid., Jan. 3, 1942, p. 2; Pittsburgh Courier, Nov. 29, 1941, p. 6.

30. New York Post, Jan. 10, 1942, p. 12; Washington Post, Jan. 10, 1942, p. 21; New York Post, Jan. 10, 1942, p. 12; Paul Gallico, “The Private Life of Joe Louis,” Liberty, May 23, 1942, pp. 52, 54.

31. Pittsburgh Courier, Jan. 31, 1942, p. 17; Baltimore Afro-American, Jan. 31, 1942, p. 22; Amsterdam News, Jan. 24, 1942, p. 12.

32. F. H. Osborn to White, Oct. 1, 1941, box A405, NAACP Papers; White to Eleanor Roosevelt, Sept. 22, 1941, ibid.; Roy Wilkins to White, Oct. 3, 1941, ibid.; Joe Louis to Secretary Knox, Sept. 29, 1941, box 37, entry 23, Records of the Department of the Navy, RG 80 (National Archives, College Park, Md.); Osborn to White, Oct. 1, 1941, box A405, NAACP Papers. In March 1941 the Morale Branch, previously a division within the Office of the Adjutant General, was established in the War Department. It would “operate directly under the Chief of Staff on a place of equality with the arms and other services.” War Department Bureau of Public Relations, “New Morale Branch of the Army Established,” March 14, 1941, entry 188, box 248, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Mead, Champion Joe Louis, 217; Osborn to White, Oct. 1, 1941, box A405, NAACP Papers; Wilkins to White, Oct. 3, 1941, ibid.

33. Cripps, Making Movies Black, 103; Starr, “Report on Negro Morale”; Mary McLeod Bethune to Osborn, June 1, 1943, box 249, entry 196A, Records of the Headquarters of Army Service Forces, RG 160 (National Archives, College Park, Md.); White to Louis, Feb. 24, 1940, box A405, NAACP Papers.

34. Bethune to Osborn, June 1, 1943, box 249, entry 196A, Headquarters of Army Service Forces Records.

35. Edwin Henderson to Hastie and Campbell Johnson, Dec. 23, 1941, box 248, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records. Of all the sports listed for interracial competition, boxing was the only one marked with an asterisk. The note at the bottom of the page said, “Despite the violent contact here and the high emotional content of the activity it is often evident that instead of arousing antagonism, qualities of respect and sportsmanship are engendered on the part of the participants and spectators. There may be some ‘boos’ at first but the spirit of American fair-play nearly always dominates in the end.” Ibid.

36. Carroll Fitzgerald to Director, Special Service Division, Sept. 27, 1943, box 182, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Gibson to the Assistant Secretary of War, March 31, 1944, ibid.; Mead, Champion Joe Louis, 230–32.

37. Fitzgerald to Director, Special Service Division, Sept. 27, 1943, box 182, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Harrie W. Pearson to Frederick H. Weston, Dec. 28, 1943, box 248, entry 196A, Headquarters of Army Service Forces Records; S. Robert Lough to Theodore Bank, Oct. 4, 1943, ibid.; Bank to Lough, Oct. 13, 1943, ibid.

38. Westbrook Pegler, “Fair Enough,”Atlanta Constitution, Jan. 26, 1942, box 3, entry 5, Office of War Information Records; “Capitol Comments,” Call, Dec. 25, 1942, box A426, NAACP files; Pegler, “Fair Enough.”

39. Baltimore Afro-American, Jan. 24, 1942, pp. 22, 2; Pittsburgh Courier, Jan. 24, 1942, p. 4; ibid., July 17, 1943, p. 19; New York Times, Oct. 11, 1944, p. 25; “Louis on Tour,” Life, Sept. 13, 1943, pp. 34–35; Daily Worker, Oct. 12, 1944, p. 10.

40. Joe Louis with Erna Rust and Art Rust Jr., Joe Louis: My Life (New York, 1978), 177–80.

41. F. K. Wint to Louis Lautier, [1943], box 182, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Lautier to Wint, Dec. 29, 1943, ibid.; Jimmy Bivens to Gibson, [1944], ibid.; Gibson to Bivens, Aug. 22, 1944, ibid. Gibson indicated that no further tours were being organized, but that he had been following Bivens’s career and would notify him of new developments.

42. Gibson to J. Harvey Kerns, Aug. 7, 1943, box 182, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Osborn to Herman Shumlin, Sept. 2, 1943, box 249, entry 196A, Headquarters of Army Service Forces Records.

43. Mildred Osby to Gibson, July 22, 1943, box 182, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Gibson to Osby, Aug. 6, 1943, ibid.

44. Louis with Rust and Rust, Joe Louis, 174.

45. Carl Byoir, “Joe Louis Named the War,” Collier’s, May 16, 1942, p. 14.

46. Roeder, Censored War, 44–47, 78. Interestingly, the poster quotes Louis as saying “We’re going to do our part . . . and we’ll win because we’re on God’s side,” changing Louis’s speech.

47. The Negro Soldier, dir. Stuart Heisler (Signal Corps, 1944), [videotape], control number 111-M-6022, Records of the Office of the Chief of Signal Officer, RG 111 (National Archives, College Park, Md.); Mead, Champion Joe Louis, 222. The film historian Thomas Cripps asserted that in 1944, The Negro Soldier became “‘mandatory’ viewing for all continental replacement troops.” By the spring of 1945, “almost every soldier who passed through I&E’s training program saw the film.” Cripps, Making Movies Black, 112. For a full evaluation of the film’s production, see ibid., 102-25.

48. Thomas Webster to Dowdal Davis, April 18, 1944, box 224, entry 91, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Chicago Defender, Feb. 26, 1944, p. 8.

49. For more on black responses to Louis’s fights, see Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, “Joe Louis and the Construction of a Black American Hero,” paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, Detroit, Oct. 2000 (in Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff’s possession).

50. Fred Maloy to Director, Special Service Division, Army Services Forces, Oct. 16, 1944, box 182, entry 188, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of War Records; Mead, Champion Joe Louis, 234.

51. Louis with Rust and Rust, Joe Louis, 196.