Joe Louis: A Multifarious Historical Figure

Gino Fluri
Rider University

Instead of looking at a history textbook, or studying an event like the Great Depression, one could look through the lens of the great boxer, Joe Louis, to get an invaluable historical experience. Louis’ career undermined some of the major problems in America at the time, and also highlights how sports ties into everyday life in America. ‘The Brown Bomber’ becomes the second ever, African American heavyweight champion when he dismantles the German, Max Schmeling, in less than two minutes. The implications of the ring becomes more than just a symbol of two men imposing their will on one another. It became an international struggle for power: in politics, culture, and society. Joe Louis and boxing came to represent something far greater than just sports. Ultimately, White America used boxing and Joe Louis as a tool for political and cultural manipulation; and Joe Louis’ career exposes the racism so deeply embedded in American society.

            The discussion of using Joe Louis in the high school social studies classroom is one you would not anticipate as being part of a history lesson. Despite this common thought, the boxer’s career is in the backdrop of World War I, fascism, Nazism, Jim Crow laws, the Great Depression, socioeconomic status, World War II, all leading up to the Civil Rights era in the U.S. Analyzing sport and race in America is a huge topic that I feel many history teachers glaze over rather precariously. This goes back to education in America and the current system that we are in; many professionals believe that teaching controversial topics is part of the job. For example, Matt Soley, who is a senior program officer in the Education and Training Division at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., gave a strong outlook on teaching controversial topics in the classroom (Soley, 2006, 10). His article, “If It’s Controversial, Why Teach It?”, presents the idea that there are many positive benefits with bringing controversial topics to the forefront of the classroom. The same can be said about Joe Louis and his career. Although it is controversial in terms of how you could show the facts, aside from that, the historical themes are vast: the discrimination he faced, racism in America that is infused by the dominant culture, and how much sports can connect to society at the time. 

I propose that the historical value provided in a boxing fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, or the rise of sports in America during the 1920s, can be an exciting and unique resource for students to learn. At the high school many students are involved with extracurricular activities or sports. Providing several lessons about Joe Louis and his boxing career, or examining along the lines of race and sport in America, can be a refreshing topic of discussion. When you think back to high school, and covering U.S history in the 20th century, students often conceive of the following: World 1, the stock market crash, Great Depression, World War II, Civil Rights, and Cold War. It is a stagnant chronological order that may provide a few lessons that generate excitement from students, but presents little else. If one were to sit back and question how a lesson about Joe Louis and boxing does not fit into this agenda, you may want to reconsider.

Historians have often examined Joe Louis’ fights with Max Schmeling in a way that could generate awesome classroom lessons, divergent discussions, projects, presentations, and create a refreshing new way to teach the 1920s, 30s, and 40s in America. Lewis Erenberg’s The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs Schmeling argues that “the boxers carried some of the deepest political and social tensions of a period wracked by political, racial, and national conflicts. They moved the racial basis of American and German nationalism to the forefront of American politics and national identity” (2006, 10). David Margolick, another historian, has stated that “The fight implicated both the future of race relations and the prestige of two powerful nations. Each fighter was bearing his shoulders more than any athlete ever had” (2005, 6).

Gathering these arguments, a teacher can discuss the importance of sport in America during the 1930s, and show how sport and race were deeply embedded in our country. This is a very intense study, but it can be simplified for any high school grade level because you can draw parallels to sports today in America and look at how certain issues about race or culture in America have been brought up through the nation’s best athletes. For example, years later with Muhammed Ali refusing to go into the draft, or even more recent, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to not stand for the national anthem. The career of Joe Louis, and boxers even earlier than his time can highlight the impact sports have on race, and the people of this country.

Using Joe Louis as a topic for classroom discussion does not only relate to the struggle African Americans had with gaining equal opportunity, or his giant fights with Max Schmeling; you can look at print culture from the time period to also identify with different concepts. To further students’ engagement, you can look at various cartoons and pictures of Joe Louis to help elicit more of a response from your class. Analyzing pictures from World War II and how Joe Louis fought in the war, becoming known as “G.I Joe” Louis is a great way to talk about how he was portrayed during the time period, what American culture was really looking at with these images, and how this may relate to the Civil Rights era. There are so many different ways to use Joe Louis and sports in the 20th century for your classroom benefit. This multifarious figure pulls out both controversial and very important lessons that students should know. For example, Rebecca Sklaroff, another historian who studied Louis’ career, said 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” (2002, 963). This notion goes back to how Joe Louis and the pictures or cartoons constructed of him, can be seen as a defining moment in American culture during this time. This would be a very cool and interactive way of getting students engaged and to think critically.

Louis’ career also represents the Civil Rights movement, in which he is leader for his time period. For the topic of race in America, a social studies class should know what type of black figures were present during the early 20th century. Joe Louis is absolutely one of them, for his dominance in the ring expressed equality that did not promote a violent response (Margolick, 2005, 81). Going back to my high school experience, seldom was their ever discussions about key black leaders during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, it is not until the Civil Rights era that we got into black history more critically. Using Joe Louis’ career and sports in America before his time, as well as print culture from the period, you can dig very deep into so many themes that tie into the Civil Rights discussion. The foundation of Jim Crow laws, as well as the way dominant culture, who is predominantly white men, actively controlled the narrative in society, is something that students should know. Whether his story, and sports, connects to race may be controversial or an intense discussion, it is something students need to know when covering the 20th century in American history.

To be considered a successful teacher, you must get your students engaged, asking questions, problem solving, and being able to critically think. Joe Louis, who represents a multifarious figure in American history, can hit all of these aspects of getting your students to critically think and ask questions. The historical significance of his career is like walking into a minefield, everywhere you step you are hitting material that can be excellent for your classroom! What are you waiting for as a teacher? You have to go out and find historically relevant material for your class, no student is going to want to discuss the Great Depression via PowerPoint, just so you can outline all of the hardships. Rather, discuss the rise of urbanization through the lens of sports, celebrities, and race in America. Instead of showing some of the hardships outlined in a PowerPoint, you can dive into cartoons and images that the popular culture embraced from the time. History can be exposed in the most subtle ways. The career of Joe Louis provides a wealth of significance topics in the high school social studies classroom: Jim Crow, Americanism with sports and race, print culture, and what a African American leader looked like at the time. There are so many options to choose from, digging deeper into the career of Joe Louis would be a valuable topic for examining 20th century America.

References:

Erenberg, L. (2006). The greatest fight of our generation: Louis v. Schmeling. Oxford University Press.

Margolick, D. (2006). Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink. New York: First Vintage Books Edition.

Sklaroff, L.R. (2002. Constructing G.I. Joe Louis: Cultural Solutions to the “Negro Problem” during World War II, Journal of American History, 89 (3), 958-983.

Soley, M. (1996). If It Is Controversial, Why Teach It. National Council for the Social Studies. Social Education 60 (1). 

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