Joe Louis, Colin Kaepernick: A sorry contrast

Joseph Dobrian, Writers Group Published 7:00 a.m. CT Oct. 10, 2018

To this day, when an athlete (of any race, in any sport) behaves badly, my father says “It’s a shame they can’t all be like Joe Louis.”

Many professional athletes were known, through their careers and after, for their high standards of graciousness and sportsmanship—their “class,” if you like: Bart Starr and Willie Davis in football; Sandy Koufax in baseball; Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles in tennis; Bill Russell in basketball; Bob Jones in golf. But Joe Louis, Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World (1937-1949), was uniquely famous for his dignity, humility, patriotism, and integrity.

Louis had faults. He was an unfaithful husband, inattentive father, reckless gambler. He spent the latter half of his life hopelessly in debt, because he couldn’t be bothered to look after his money. In middle age, he developed paranoid schizophrenia, and turned to cocaine and alcohol to ease his anxiety.

On the other hand, he was known for his low-key, gentlemanly behavior, in and out of the ring. The media called him “a credit to his race.” Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon retorted, “He’s a credit to his race—the human race.”

Quietly, Louis crusaded against Jim Crow. He didn’t demonstrate—that wasn’t his way—but he donated the entire purse from his January 9, 1942 title defense against Jacob “Buddy” Baer to the Navy Relief Fund: this, at a time when the Navy only allowed black people to enlist as Steward’s Mates. This gesture went a long way toward shaming the Navy into integration. Louis was frequently a guest of wealthy white friends at “restricted” restaurants and nightclubs. Gradually, he was able to gain entry to these places on his own—and bring his black friends—thus ending the restrictions, one property at a time.

Much of his work for racial equality was under-reported—even criticized by the black press—because Louis was a Republican, and publicly condemned President Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Probably nothing illustrates why Joe Louis was so admired better than the statement he made when he joined the U.S. Army—suspending his boxing career, at the peak of his earning power, to be a $21-a-month private soldier: “We’re going to do our part, and we’ll win, because we’re on God’s side.”

A friend told him, “You said it wrong, dummy! You were supposed to say, ‘God’s on our side!’”

Louis replied, “I said it right. Just wait and see.”

“We’re on God’s side” became America’s unofficial slogan for the rest of World War II. Louis never talked much—but he was no dummy.

Louis died penniless, due to a mountainous tax debt. Many people urged the IRS to forgive that debt, due to Louis’ immeasurable services to his country—but Louis never made that request, never complained, never denied responsibility.

Louis is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in a hero’s grave.  

Early in the 2016 season, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting (later kneeling) for the pre-game playing of the National Anthem because, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people.”

This, at a time when Jim Crow is more than 50 years dead. This, at a time when affirmative action guarantees that black students will have a better shot at admission to prestigious schools than white students. This, at a time when racial polarization might in some ways be worse than ever—thanks, quite clearly, to professional grievance-grifters such as Kaepernick, whom Nike recently signed to a multi-year, multimillion-dollar endorsement contract, as a reward for “sacrificing everything.”

Kaepernick has the right to protest. Nike has the right to pay him. Anyone has the right to admire him. I have the right to despise him.

Joe Louis was a great American. Joe Louis helped unify our country during the 20th century’s greatest crisis. Joe Louis truly sacrificed.

Joe Louis was a Man.

What a sorry contrast.

Joseph Dobrian is a novelist and member of the Press-Citizen Writers Group. 

Friday, February 04, 2005

Max Schmeling Helped Pay For Joe Louis's Funeral

The Indiana Jones movies, the Jesse Owens Olympics, and the Schmeling/Louis fights, provide the myth that the USA waged a Cold War with Germany in the 1930's over the issue of racial tolerance.

I'll forgive Lucas and Spielberg, who were consciously filming works of fiction in pursuit of an honest dollar, but most of what we read and hear about Owens and Louis do not, and can not, compute in light of the Jackie Robinson story. Such myths are created in order to pretend that the American people, who were (and are) full of all kinds of bigotry and hatreds, were very supportive of the success of blacks in the 1930's, as if Hitler's main source of race-baiting and popularity was by demonizing blacks in America, as opposed to Jews in Germany.

All down the line, such a narrative is self-evidently and stupendously ridiculous. Any participant in this charade, whether at PBS, Discovery, the History Channel, or ESPN is no better than a Soviet propagandist.

But it was even celebrated, in a roundabout way, in Rocky IV.

It is also true, however, that Max Schmeling, dying yesterday at the age of 99, seems to be one of the classiest and honorable of men that anyone could imagine. The article linked to here is not an obit - Google hasn't caught up to that yet - but it is a brief overview of a courageous and conscientious man.


Knocked Down by Life, Joe Louis Could Rely on His Friends

Image CreditCreditBettmann/Corbis

By Michael Beschloss

  • Oct. 17, 2014

Here Joe Louis poses at age 62, in 1977, in the casino of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Although one of the greatest prizefighters in American history, Louis was, by that time, almost as well known for his struggles with the Internal Revenue Service and for the damage he sustained in the ring, before the long-term dangers of brain injury in boxing and other sports were better understood.

The old “Brown Bomber” was merely a vestige of the 24-year-old world heavyweight champion who, at Yankee Stadium in June 1938, had knocked out his German opponent, Max Schmeling, within two minutes and four seconds.

Louis, who had held his title for a year heading into the bout, had told reporters he would not actually feel like a world champion until he disposed of Schmeling, who had knocked him out in the 12th round in 1936.

With more than 70,000 spectators, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and J. Edgar Hoover, watching from the stands, and an estimated 70 million people following by radio — which some called the largest listening audience of the time — it was a signal night for geopolitics.

Although Schmeling had not joined the Nazi party, Hitler had promoted him as an avatar of Aryan greatness. At the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt had grasped Louis’s biceps and emboldened him in his duty.

“Yeah, I’m scared,” Louis told a friend. “I’m scared I might kill Schmeling.”

In January 1942, after World War II began, he gave the United States Navy Relief Society a check for $89,092, which was said to represent the profits, including his own, from his bout that month with Buddy Baer. Enlisting in the segregated United States Army as a private, he made morale-building visits to American bases but would brook no discrimination. During an appearance in his birth state of Alabama, the military police accosted him after he refused to sit in a “colored” waiting area.

Although he earned a fortune during his almost 12-year reign as world champion, Louis fell into a deepening chasm of personal debts and I.R.S. demands for back taxes (which included disallowance of deductions he had taken for buying G.I.s tickets to his exhibitions), as well as penalties and compound interest. “I made five million,” he later said, “and wound up broke, owing the government a million.”

The aging Louis declared his retirement in 1949, then concluded that he could not afford to stop boxing. But he failed in comeback attempts against Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano.

“Joe’s not broke,” his wife Martha had insisted during her husband’s financial traumas. “He’s rich — rich with friends. If he said he needed a dollar, a million people would send him a dollar and he’d be a millionaire.”

In 1951, Dr. J. M. Houston, the Illinois State Athletic Commission’s medical adviser, who had examined Louis twice during the previous 18 months, told The Associated Press that Louis’s reaction time, reflexes and coordination had deteriorated.

“No one knows at just what point one slips over the line into a mentally impaired condition,” Houston warned, adding that Louis has “now absorbed enough blows on the head so that he could be considered on the threshold of danger.” But, looking to pay his bills, Louis took up wrestling.

The connection between the decades of being pummeled and Louis’s later physical and mental challenges will never be able to be precisely established. But in 1970, reportedly suffering from pneumonia, cocaine dependency and emotional problems, including delusions and paranoia, Louis was removed by a Denver sheriff for five months — at the behest of his third wife Martha and son Joe Jr. — to the local veterans hospital and a Colorado psychiatric hospital.


“They,” I assume refers to African-American athletes. Dobrian is upset because Colin Kaepernick is not patriotic in the mode of Joe Louis, whose abject-poverty caused Max Schmelling (Hitler's champion) to pay for Louis' funeral.  However, Emancipated African-American slaves invented the American patriotism Dobrian bemoans. 

But I’m sure he will settle for a Kanye West tribute to President Trump.


Of Protest And Patriotism: A 1968 Gold Medalist Remembers The Games


Melvin Pender (right) with his friend, Keith Sims, at their StoryCorps interview in Atlanta last month.

Kelly Moffitt/StoryCorps

Fifty years ago Friday, Mexico City kicked off the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Summer Olympics. World records were shattered in those Games, but it was Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' medal podium protest that captured the headlines.

Melvin Pender, a 31-year-old runner, was Carlos' roommate at the games. During a visit to StoryCorps last month, Pender reflected on the historic event with his friend, Keith Sims, whom he coached in track at West Point.

Pender had been a platoon leader in Vietnam when he got tapped by the military to compete. At the time, Pender was one of the fastest track athletes in the Army.

Before the Olympics, Pender faced mentally and physically taxing challenges while deployed to Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. "Things happen, you know, you couldn't see the enemy, they were shooting at us from the jungles," he told Sims. He lost one of the soldiers in his division. "This young man died in my arms."

After that mission, he says, a captain relayed orders from Washington that he was being pulled from active duty to train for the Mexico City Games. "I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave my men," Pender recalls. "I told my men, 'I'm going back for you. I'm going to win this gold medal for you guys.' "

Melvin Pender receives the hand-off in the 4 x 100 meter relay during the 1968 Olympics, for which he won a gold medal.

Courtesy Melvin and Debbie Pender

When he arrived in Mexico to compete, Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, warned athletes, according to Pender, that if they demonstrated in the Olympics, " 'I'm going to send all you boys home.' "

Pender saw the threats as a sign of disrespect. "How are you going to call someone 'boy'? I mean, here I just got out of combat, seeing people die, you know, defending my country — you're going to call me a boy?" he said. "They don't make boys like me."

High-ranking officers issued his fellow African-American soldiers similar warnings. "Col. [Donald] Miller called all us in and said, 'You know, you're in the military. You know you can't get involved in any kind of demonstration.' "

After sports practices, black athletes would gather to talk about the mounting racial violence and inequality happening in the U.S. In these meetings, athletes discussed how they might protest, Pender recalls.

"I said, 'I have been going to the meetings, yes. We all have. We all black,' " Pender says. "Just 'cause I'm in the military don't make me anything different, but I'm not going to do anything that's going to disgrace my family and my military career."

Although he supported other black athletes who chose to protest, Pender knew he could not demonstrate if he wanted to keep his military standing.

Pender's event was the 4x100-meter relay. "To be on the relay team, it was my time to shine," he said. "I ran my heart out. We end up winning the race at a world-record time of 38.2 seconds." And with it, a gold medal.

Meanwhile, Carlos, his Olympic Village roommate, won the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash. Smith won gold. The moment is captured in a famous picture: On the medal podium during the national anthem, Smith and Carlos, heads bowed and wearing black gloves, raised their arms with clenched fists in a Black Power salute. Peter Norman, a white Australian runner who won silver, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support.

Pender tells Sims that he felt proud of his U.S. teammates. "When Carlos came back to the room, I could see the hurt in his eyes, and he just said, 'I did what I had to do, Mel.' And that's when I told him, I said, 'I'm so proud of you.' "

In response to the protest, the International Olympic Committee stripped Carlos and Smith of their gold medals.

Much of the media coverage and the international community misconstrued the political statement as unpatriotic, Pender says. "They was not trying to disgrace the national anthem of America," he says. "What was happening was wrong. They were trying to show the world: 'Hey, we are human beings — we're human.' "

"That changed my life."

After returning to Vietnam, Pender earned a bronze star for his service. He and Carlos remain friends today.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kelly Moffitt.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at


Muhammad Ali [4] born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.;[5] January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer, activist, and philanthropist. He is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century. From early in his career, Ali was known as an inspiring, controversial, and polarizing figure both inside and outside of the ring.[6][7]

He was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and began training as an amateur boxer when he was 12 years old. At age 18, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, then turned professional later that year, before converting to Islam after 1961. At age 22, in 1964, he won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in a major upset. He then changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his "slave name", to Muhammad Ali. He set an example of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the Civil Rights Movement.[8][9]

In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further antagonized the white establishment by refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs, and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War.[8][10] He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing titles. He successfully appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly four years and thereby lost a period of peak performance as an athlete. Ali's actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.[11][12]

How Taking A Stand For Justice Can Threaten The Careers Of Black Athletes


Journalist Howard Bryant discusses the history of social protest among African-American athletes. His new book, The Heritage, traces the tradition back to Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and others.


Views: 61

Comment by mary gravitt on October 13, 2018 at 1:16pm

I was born in the United States.  My grandfather was a slave on a South Carolina Plantation.  He and his slave family purchased the Plantation from the Master for 25 cents an acre.  Donald Trump, like Barack Obama was born in the United States.  Trump's father was a member of the KKK.  My father was a loyal American until the day he died.

I live in a small Midwest college town in Iowa.  We have had our racial problems because of an influx of underclass African-American that moved into town in search of the advantages that Joseph Dobrain immigrant parents searched for.  He was welcome because he is White.  My people were unwelcome because they are black.  He thinks his Whiteness entitles him to judge who is a good Negro in the mode of Joe Louis and an evil/bad "nigger" like Colin Kaepernick because he will not shut-up and play.

I have tried to tell the editor of the Press-Citizen that he is doing a disservice to the community by not allowing me to answer this bigot who constantly returns to the theme of Affirmative Action and so-call Black preference in educational institutions.  As if Whites have not always had entrance.  Affirmative Action may open the door, but you had better have the talent to remain.  He has confused Affirmative Action with Class and Class Warfare.

Comment by Maui Surfer on October 13, 2018 at 6:47pm

Nothing, absolutely nothing, ever felt like the hand I shook as a kindergarten student in the South when a man, born into Slavery and then living since as a sharecropper, shook my little hand. Nothing else has ever felt like it. I was picking pineapple ten years later, what I thought was the hardest job imaginable, then, my mind crept back to that day ...

Comment by Rodney Roe on October 15, 2018 at 5:21am

I realize that as a recipient of white privilege I cannot speak to your question, Mary.  However, I have a few, undoubtedly unconsciously biased comments

As a medical student in the mid-sixties a classmate called me into a room to listen to a patient's story.  He was rail thin, white haired black man who told the two of us that he was born on a plantation in Louisiana.  He remembered Union troops riding onto the plantation telling them that they were free; that the war was over.  He had no birth certificate and did not know what year he was born.  We estimated that he was 104. He had dignity and what might be described as presence. 

We were both white students in a class with 3 black fellow students, one of whom graduated.

What I do know is that the three students in my class were very different people.  The one who graduated was a loner and a plodder.He cheated, was caught, went before a student-teacher ethics committee and was allowed to continue.  His cheat was that he made up all of the references on a term paper.  One was a man that we all liked who studied hard and was tutored by some of my most capable classmates and still could not pass.  The third was probably the brightest of the three, but thought that he should be passed because he was black.  He didn't study.  He sued the school when he flunked out and lost  He later applied to Howard and I understand did well.

I was in the class of 1968.  My class standing was in the middle.  I was another plodder.

Before anyone asks why there were only three black students, consider that of a starting class of 105 only 7 were women and 4 of those graduated.  One of those was number one in our class, and so much smarter than the rest of us that her scores on exams were a dot out past the end of the curve.

The question is why were there only 3 black students and 7 women?  I think it is because the culture of the day said that physicians were white men, and it took a generation to change that concept.  There is no affirmative action for women and yet they are about half of the students in a medical school class now.  At the time I started to medical school there were few women who thought they could venture past becoming a homemaker, a teacher, a nurse or a nun.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education states, "There is widespread agreement on the urgency in the United States of training more black medical professionals. But the bad news is that instead of an increasing number of blacks in medical schools, recent years have seen a significant drop in overall African-American enrollments in U.S. medical programs. The good news is that African Americans are making good progress at the nation's highest-ranked medical schools. And contrary to public beliefs, blacks who are admitted to these top medical institutions are graduating at a very high rate. "

Seventy and seventy-five of the students, respectively, about 15% of students at Duke University and Case Western Reserve now are black.  However, only 4% of medical school faculty are black.  Why is the number of African-American students decreasing? 

Of the roughly 53,000 first time applicants to U.S. medical schools in 2016, only about 20,000 were women, yet the enrollees were 48.2% women and 50.2% men.  Does this indicate that women applicants were more qualified than men, or that there was a policy of giving women an edge in the process?

Also, did you leave the word "in" out of the title? "part way in the United States?"

How would that work?  out has already happened with Liberia. 

I'm sorry about your family's experience in Iowa.  We lived in Des Moines for a couple of years.  I found the climate and the people to be cold.  It felt like when I opened my mouth I was marked as a Southerner, 20 points was subtracted from my perceived I.Q.and they were focused on missing teeth and extra digits.

Comment by mary gravitt on October 15, 2018 at 1:16pm

We Americans are going though a time when our enemies want to divide US.  Some Americans want to believe if Americans of color were gone, America would be perfect.  They are like Hitler in his notion of de-Jewdification.  He thought if he made Europe Jew-free, Europe would be perfect.  It did not work because in the end the winner was Stalin and Stalinism.  

The United States is unique in that anyone, regardless of "race," can be an American.  And being a secular society, pogroms were out of the question.  Now we are living through a Dark Time, but in the end WE SHALL OVERCOME!  America will be free of the Trumps and his BS in the near future because a democracy cannot stand the strain and the people will rise up.

What I am disappointed with is the Press-Citizen, a newspaper that had avoided fake news is to allow this Opinion writer to get away with bigotry.

Comment by Rodney Roe on October 15, 2018 at 6:42pm

Have you written op-eds for the Press-Citizen before?  I guess I'm trying a thousand miles away to determine why they won't let you respond, and that's pointless.

The white supremacists have always been here.  They were here during Colonial times.  They become invisible during times that they don't feel threatened and then resurface whenever times are hard, times when they feel particularly disadvantaged.  It is odd that privileged people can feel disadvantaged simply by having the playing field made level.

There seems to be a pendulum swing to these things.  The war in Rwanda was against two tribes of Africans, tribes that at times intermarried, but - thanks to the DeBeers family and the Belgian government one had had long term advantage so that the colonialists could have access to diamonds.  As soon as the colonialists left there was a blood bath created by the power vacuum and pent-up anger.  The situation in what used to be Yugoslavia went back even farther, to the occupation by the Ottoman Turks during which Muslim converts were treated better than those who did not convert.

I would like to think, as you suggested, that this current situation would regain balance, but that sometimes does not happen until there has been complete upheaval and persecution as happened in Nazi Germany.

I'm old and in all likelihood will not see the resolution of this current asymmetry, but i am apprehensive for our children and their children.

I don't know whether speaking out against this injustice ever accomplishes anything in terms of restoring society, but it makes us feel like we are doing something, and if the U.S. ever goes through something as extreme as Nazi Germany did we will at least be on record as opposing it.  People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer died as a result of their opposition, and at the time their opposition may have had no effect on the tide of prejudice and persecution, but they serve as lessons for later times.

It is interesting.  I have an artist friend who is German.  She belongs to a quilting society that makes quilts for veterans.  I made the comment that most Germans today don't talk about WWII or the Nazi period.  Her response was "they are too embarrassed."  I suppose that is true, but how will tomorrows Germans learn not to go down that path again.


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