[Marxism] Boxing and racism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 7 09:26:46 MDT 2005


Excerpt: A Left-Hook to Racism
By Dave Zirin, AlterNet
Posted on October 7, 2005, Printed on October 7, 2005
http://www.alternet.org/story/26359/

This is an excerpt from Dave Zirin's new book, What's My Name, Fool?: 
Sports and Resistance in the United States (Haymarket Books, 2005).

No sport has chewed athletes up and spit them out -- especially black 
athletes -- quite like boxing. For the very few who "make it," it is never 
the sport of choice. Boxing has always been for the poor, for people born 
at the absolute margins of society. The first boxers in the United States 
were slaves. Southern plantation owners amused themselves by putting 
together the strongest slaves and having them fight it out while wearing 
iron collars.

After the abolition of slavery, boxing was unique among sports because it 
was desegregated as early as the turn of the last century. This was not 
because the people who ran boxing were in any way progressive. They make 
the people who run boxing today resemble gentlemen of great character. 
Those early promoters simply wanted to make a buck off the rampant racism 
in American society by pitting black vs. white for public spectacle. 
Unwittingly, these early fight financiers opened up a space in which the 
white supremacist ideas of the day could be challenged. This was the era of 
deeply racist pseudo-science. The attitude of the social Darwinist quacks 
was that blacks were not only mentally inferior but also physically 
inferior to whites. Blacks were cast as too lazy and too undisciplined to 
ever be taken seriously as athletes.

When Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight-boxing champion in 
1908, his victory created a serious crisis for these ideas. The media 
whipped up in a frenzy about the need for a "Great White Hope" to restore 
order to the world. Former champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to 
restore that order, saying, "I am going into this fight for the sole 
purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro."

At the fight, which took place in 1910, the ringside band played, "All 
Coons Look Alike to Me," and promoters led the nearly all-white crowd in 
the chant "Kill the nigger." But Johnson was faster, stronger, and smarter 
than Jeffries, knocking him out with ease. After Johnson's victory, there 
were race riots around the country -- in Illinois, Missouri, New York, 
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots 
consisted of white lynch mobs attempting to enter black neighborhoods and 
blacks fighting back.

This reaction to a boxing match was the most widespread simultaneous racial 
uprising in the U.S. until the riots that followed the 1968 assassination 
of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Right-wing religious 
groups immediately organized a movement to ban boxing, and Congress 
actually passed a law that prohibited the showing of boxing films. Black 
leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, pushed Johnson to condemn the 
African-American uprising. But Johnson remained defiant. He not only spoke 
out on all issues of the day, he also broke racist social taboos by 
marrying white women, and as a result faced harassment and persecution for 
most of his life. Johnson was forced into exile in 1913 on the trumped-up 
charge of transporting a white woman across state lines for prostitution.

The "Johnson backlash" meant that it would be 20 years before the rise of 
another black heavyweight champ -- "the Brown Bomber," Joe Louis. Louis was 
quiet where Johnson had been outspoken. An all-white management team 
handled Louis very carefully, and had a set of rules he had to follow, 
including, "never be photographed with a white woman, never go to a club by 
yourself, and never speak unless spoken to." But the Brown Bomber's timid 
public face became fierce in the ring. Louis scored 69 victories in 72 
professional fights -- 55 of them knockouts.

Despite the docile image demanded by his handlers, Joe Louis -- and his 
dominance in the ring -- represented dignity and resistance to Blacks and 
to the radicalizing working class of the 1930s. This played out most 
famously during Louis's two fights against German boxer Max Schmeling in 
1936 and 1938. German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler promoted Schmeling as the 
epitome of "Aryan greatness," and in their first bout, Schmeling knocked 
out Louis. Hitler and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels had a field day, 
and the southern press in the United States laughed it up. One columnist 
for the New Orleans Picayune wrote, "I guess this proves who really is the 
master race."

The Louis-Schmeling rematch in 1938 was even more politically loaded -- a 
physical referendum on Hitler, the Jim Crow South, and antiracism. The U.S. 
Communist Party organized radio listenings of the fight from Harlem to 
Birmingham that became mass meetings -- complete with armed guards at the 
door. Hitler closed down movie houses so all of Germany would be compelled 
to listen to the fight. The cinema doors probably should have been kept 
open; Louis devastated Schmeling in one round, with lightning combinations 
that stunned the big German. In a notorious move, Hitler cut all of 
Germany's radio power when it was clear that the knockout was coming.

The Brown Bomber held the heavyweight title for 12 years, the longest reign 
in history. He beat all comers, the overwhelming majority of them white, 
successfully defending his title a record 25 times. He was, according to 
poet Maya Angelou, "The one invincible Negro, the one who stood up to the 
white man and beat him down with his fists. He in a sense carried so many 
of our hopes, and maybe even our dreams of vengeance." Thirty years after 
the fight against Schmeling, Martin Luther King Jr. reinforced its 
significance by reminding readers of Why We Can't Wait that

     More than 25 years ago, one of the Southern states adopted a new 
method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its 
earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so 
that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to 
judge how the victim reacted in this novel situation. The first victim was 
a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled 
upward, through the microphone came the words, "Save me, Joe Louis. Save 
me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis."

Read more of Dave Zirin's writing at Edgeofsports.com.

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