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Sent: Saturday, June 14, 2003 3:35 PM
Subject: Stull on Hietala, _Fight of the Century_
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
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Thomas R. Hietala. _Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis,
and the Struggle for Racial Equality_. Armonk, New York: M.E.
Sharpe, 2002. 386 pp. Photographs, bibliographic references, and
index. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-7656-0722-0.
Reviewed for H-Arete by Richard Arlin Stull <ras2@...
Department of Health and Physical Education, Humboldt State
University, Arcata, California
Not Running, Not Hiding
Thomas Hietala's _Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis,
and the Struggle for Racial Equality_ is a fascinating historical
treatment of how two black boxing champions, Jack Johnson and Joe
Louis, affected and reflected racial attitudes in the United States
during the first half of the twentieth century. Hietala mixes an
array of anecdotes with historical record to keep his book moving
through three hundred and eighty-six pages.
Jack Johnson's quest for and conquest of the heavyweight boxing
title in 1908 stimulated a search for a "Great White Hope," a term
penned by none other than American writer Jack London. Racial
theories of the time, which included the "small crania" and
"arrested cognitive development" with respect to blacks were further
reinforced by Tom Dixon's racist novel _The Clansman_ and later D.W.
Griffith's film, _Birth of a Nation_ in 1915. Johnson was
undaunted, however, and lived by his own code inside the ring and
out. He smiled at vanquished foes, cavorted with prostitutes, drove
fast cars and married a white woman at a time of brutal lynchings
and when many states outlawed interracial marriages. Johnson's
defeat of two white champions frightened a public that saw Johnson
as a dangerous symbol and challenge to white political and social
authority. Johnson antagonized not only whites but also many black
intellectuals who thought that Johnson's public personae and
unapologetic lifestyle tended to reinforce the worst white
stereotypes about blacks.
Hietala's research is exhaustive. He devotes individual chapters to
the racial context of the times that Johnson and later Joe Louis,
lived. Hietala's rich trove of anecdotes makes the _Fight of the
Century_ not only informative but also highly entertaining. My
personal favorite was a story about the aftermath of black pride
following Johnson's one-sided defeat of former champion and Great
White Hope, Jim Jeffries, who was coaxed out of retirement to
"redeem" the race. A young man named Open Mouth Rainey reportedly
"...sauntered into a local grill and told the owner he wanted 'a cup
of coffee as strong as Jack Johnson and a steak as beat up as
Jeffries'" (p. 42). Open Mouth paid for his request, however. The
owner shot Open Mouth five times. But it was Johnson's defeat of
Jeffries on July 4, 1910, that made July 4 a unique holiday for the
black population in America.
In some cases, Hietala details events that are important for the
historical record but become difficult for the reader to follow.
The long sequence of Johnson's trial under the Mann Act, for
example, is lengthy and confusing. Additionally, the reader would
benefit from even more biographical information about Johnson's
early years. Nonetheless, Hietala does a masterful job of
illustrating how Johnson became a lightening rod for the racial
conflicts and paradoxes in America at the turn of the twentieth
century. He quotes Billy Lewis of the Indianapolis Freeman as
saying that Johnson had committed "...a trinity of unpardonables
making for sin triplicate: His chief sin is being a Negro. Next he
whipped a white man. Next he married a white woman" (p. 91).
Johnson's rise and fall set the stage for the next black champion,
Joe Louis. Louis's managers and trainers were well aware that a
sober, god-fearing image was critical to Louis's acceptance as a
black champion. In one of many anecdotes illustrating Louis's
popularity, Hietala recounts the story of James McKnight. McKnight
peddled his bicycle for eight days from Detroit to New York City to
see Louis fight Primo Carnera in 1935, setting a new cross-country
bike record in the process.
Hietala details how race, in Louis's case, ultimately became less
important than patriotism and nationalism as exemplified by his two
fights with German heavyweight Max Schmeling. With the specter of
war looming over America in the personae of Adolph Hitler and the
theory of Aryan supremacy, a united America ultimately transcended
many racial divisions. Louis had suffered his first defeat ever at
the hands of Schmeling in 1936. Louis later won the heavyweight
title, knocking out James Braddock in 1937. Louis's epic rematch
with Schmeling in 1938 was the shortest heavyweight title bout to
date; he knocked out Schmeling in one round. America celebrated
Louis as an American hero, while Berlin cut the radio feed before
German listeners could hear Schmeling counted out.
Louis enlisted in the army in 1942 and served through 1946. He
boxed exhibitions and served in a variety of public relations
capacities. Louis even interceded on behalf of a young black
serviceman who was facing a court martial because of
insubordination. After the war the young serviceman changed the
course of sports history; his name was Jackie Robinson.
Hietala's book gives evidence that although Woodrow Wilson and
Franklin Roosevelt may have seemed progressive with respect to race,
that they also kowtowed to Southern constituencies on critical race
issues. He also details the gruesome crimes against and lynchings
of blacks by whites that took place in many parts of the country and
gives the reader an economics lesson on housing in the inner city.
The fact that the War Department ordered the Red Cross to separate
black and white blood supplies will appall many readers not familiar
with race history in America. Hietala's analyses are well written
though he sometimes skips back and forth between events in the
fighter's careers, confusing the reader on chronologies. Hietala's
chapter 8, entitled "The Harder They Fall" is a beautifully written
chapter about the decline of Louis's public image after revelations
of his extra-marital affairs many years after his career was over.
His discussion illustrates the difficulty writers and historians
have in judging and evaluating public figures from previous eras
when access to new information and changing moral standards create
new cultural contexts.
Finally, for the ardent boxing fan, Hietala amasses some fascinating
coincidences, linkages, and historical facts. The Louis camp, for
example, spurned Jack Johnson when he offered to help train Louis.
Incensed, Johnson counseled Schmeling on Louis's vulnerability to
the right hand. Schmeling repeatedly staggered Louis with his
overhand right and ultimately knocked him out with his right hand in
their first fight in 1936. The father of James Earl Jones, the
actor who played a fictionalized Jack Johnson [Jack Jefferson] in
Howard Sackler's Broadway play in 1968, _The Great White Hope_, had
been a sparring partner for Joe Louis. Heavyweight champion
Muhammad Ali was one of many attendees who was impressed by Jones's
performance in _The Great White Hope_ in 1968, and commented on
parallels between himself and Jack Johnson.
Hietala's book is a powerful, readable, fascinating study of
American race relations in the first fifty years of the twentieth
century, suitable for scholars and readers of American History,
American Studies, Sport History and Sociology, Ethnic Studies and
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