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FW: Stull on Hietala, _Fight of the Century_ [incl. Joe Louis]

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi..aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@H-NET.MSU.EDU] Sent: Saturday, June 14, 2003 3:35 PM To: H-REVIEW@H-NET.MSU.EDU
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      From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@...]
      Sent: Saturday, June 14, 2003 3:35 PM
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      Subject: Stull on Hietala, _Fight of the Century_

      Published by H-Arete@... (May, 2003)

      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
      boxing history.

      Copyright (c) 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits
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      author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and
      H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For other uses
      contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.
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