J.R. Johnson

Joe Louis and Jack Johnson

(July 1946)

Originally published in Labor Action, 1 July 1946.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 60–62.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A tense political or social situation can take the simplest or most commonplace event and make it into a symbol of political struggle. The most famous of such cases is the Dreyfus case in France fifty years ago. Lenin once pointed out how this anti-Semitic attack by the military caste on a Jewish officer nearly precipitated a revolution in France.

The situation of the Negroes has in the past lifted sporting events in which Negroes took part to a level of international political interest. Observers in Europe in 1935 noted the great satisfaction with which “the left” greeted the Olympic victories of the American Negroes. These games took place in Berlin, under Hitler’s very nose. His obnoxious racial theories were debunked on the presence of thousands of fanatical Nazis.

Now Joe Louis retains his title as heavyweight champion of the world. The Negroes rejoice, and the labor movement should view with sympathy and understanding their deep satisfaction.

The Negroes express by this a very simple, very human, and for that reason, social sentiment of great significance.

“Negroes are inferior? Very well then. Here is one Negro who is not inferior and beats everybody who dares to challenge him.”

The British government with its long experience in colonial domination, allows no nonsense of that kind. It prohibits by law competition for boxing titles between Englishmen and colored colonials, and we need have no doubt that if the reactionaries in the US ever got their chance they would restrict the championship to whites only. Luckily, the labor movement (whether individual workers supported Louis or Conn) would raise such a howl, that these fascistic types would have to keep their mouths shut.

Joe Louis, however, is a remarkable person, and has stamped his personality on this generation. He is a man of great personal dignity, and has borne the temptations and the publicity associated with the championship in a manner that has won the admiration of all. This has led to comments on Louis as a “representative of his race”the announcer on the night of the big fight referred to him as such.

Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post wrote a column which ended with the phrase that Joe was a credit to his race. But he added immediately, “I mean the human race.” Harlem was vastly pleased with this and the phrase has acquired wings among the Negro people.

At the opposite extreme is the New York Times.

A few days before the fight Jack Johnson, another Negro champion, died. Johnson had had a stormy and spectacular career and had served time in prison. The Times said in so many words that Johnson’s conduct had cast a stain upon the Negro character which Louis’s conduct was wiping away. This is a piece of ignorance and impertinence which deserves to be exposed.

Jack Johnson was champion of the old school of champions. In those days, the days of John L. Sullivan, J.J. Corbett, etc, the champions lived fast. What made the authorities mad was that Johnson refused to act differently simply because he was a Negro. He insisted on his right to live his own way. He was persecuted but remained irrepressible to the end. Doubtless he did many wrong and stupid things. But Negro publicists who followed his career have denounced all attempts to make him into a kind of Negro black sheep.

Similarly this attempt to hold up Louis as a model Negro has strong overtones of condescension and race prejudice. It implies: “See! When a Negro knows how to conduct himself, he gets on very well and we all love him.” From there the next step is: “If only all Negroes behaved like Joe, the race problem would be solved.”

And yet there is a sense in which the careful public conduct of Joe Louis is a matter not only of his personal character but of his origin. Joe himself has stated in public that he would rather die than do anything which would discredit his people. In this he reflects the acute social consciousness of the generation to which he belongs.

The Negro question today is not what it was in Jack Johnson’s time. Joe feels that he is not only a boxer but a social figure, someone whose actions can harm the struggle of Negroes for their full democratic rights. In that sense he feels he is a genuine “representative” of the Negro people. He feels it strongly and the Negroes, recognizing this, admire him for it as well as for his boxing prowess. That is not only legitimate but is good and in its way progressive. To the Negroes, it is only another reason why they should not be deprived of their rights. The important thing is to separate this healthy sentiment from the smug and hypocritical who clasp their hands across their chests and whine: “If only Negroes conducted themselves like Joe Louis, the Negro problem would be solved.”

Last updated on 19.7.2011