I stumbled on documentaries about the lives of each of these icons last night, and was overwhelmed with admiration for them, even more than I’d had for them years ago when they were more present in my consciousness.
When I was a kid, Joe Louis was still “the Brown Bomber,” the hero of our nation who had defeated the supposed great specimen of Aryan superiority, Max Schmelling, and saved our nation’s honor.
As I grew older, I knew of his tax troubles and his reputation for having supposedly squandered his wealth. And in the “revolutionary” 1960s, I was more than aware of his being viewed as an “Uncle Tom” (called that by Cassius Clay even before he became Ali, if I remember correctly).
But I always admired the guy, because as a kid he was celebrated in song and newsreels and magazines in a way that made him seem like a pretty humble and decent champion of all the people.
The documentary on his life that I stumbled on (I think it was on HBO) made the point that long before Jackie Robinson “broke the color barrier” in sports, Joe Louis did. (Of course Jack Johnson did too, even earlier, but not in the same groundbreaking ultimately unifying way that Louis and Robinson did).
What the film showed was how badly our country treated Louis, who not only became a symbol of African-American hope and pride, but also of our entire nation’s stand against Hitler and the Nazis and all they stood for.
He was “America’s champion”—for most whites just as much as he was the champion of black Americans. And when WWII broke out, at the height of his fame and money-earning power, he voluntarily joined the service and donated his time and money to defeating our enemies (already having begun donating all the proceeds of his fights to the fight against fascism, and then paying out of his own pocket for various entertainments and services for fellow enlisted men and draftees, etc. etc.)
Despite the fact that the armed services were still segregated, and he was treated like a second-class citizen, and that when the war was over and he returned to civilian life, the I.R.S. hounded him and compounded the interest on overdue taxes until the amount became insurmountable.
He withstood the humiliation of fighting long past his prime, just so the I.R.S. could come and confiscate the gate to pay part of the interest on his overdue taxes. He endured ridicule for his stint in “professional wrestling” and for various appearances and endorsements and uncomfortable attempts at an extremely self-conscious singing and dancing routine, but nonetheless gave it his best shot—all to pay the bills and the I.R.S.
But he also continued to stand up for his race. I had no idea, but learned from this documentary, that he was the first African-American to play in a PGA tournament. He fought the PGA leadership at the time—which had a prohibition on non-whites playing in any of their golf competitions—and got them to change their policy, opening up professional golf to black Americans.
I was also touched by the loyalty of his friends, including Frank Sinatra, who never forgot that when Louis was on top, still an icon, Sinatra asked him to join him in a show and offered ten thousand for Louis’s appearance, but because they were friends, Louis refused the money and did the gig for free.
Sinatra never forgot and made sure Louis never went hungry or homeless or without.
I don’t know, maybe it’s my age or my being a sentimental Irishman, but this film moved me deeply, and made me reassess my image of Louis and his importance in our history, not our sports history, but our cultural and political and social history. He was much more of a major figure in 20th Century “America” than I realized, and his story should be more widely known.
As should Pete Seeger’s. I thought I knew his story too, but the documentary on his life I caught on the local PBS station made me not only remember what I loved about the guy back in the day, but why he is such a giant figure in our history as well.
He almost single-handedly made music a major part of our political history and made folk music a popular movement and a common ingredient in all kinds of political and social and commemorative gatherings.
And, like Louis, he’s a decent, humble, principled guy, who too was hounded by our government only to be exonerated seventeen years after being banned from TV and radio. He never changed his position toward the government’s inquiries into his political beliefs and activities, standing on the principle that his vote and his beliefs were his personal business, not the government’s.
He too volunteered for service in WWII, but unlike Louis, Seeger never enjoyed or needed “the good life” that money and fame can bring. He built his home in the countryside of upstate New York, a cabin in the wilderness, where he and his wife raised their family (he now performs with one of his grandchildren) and well into his eighties is still spry and in good voice.
At the height of his fame and success, as a member of The Weavers, who had the giant hit of my boyhood “Goodnight Irene” (my mother’s and one of my sister’s names, so very popular in our house), he walked away from a weekly television show because he didn’t want to be indebted or controlled by the sponsor of the show (in those days most shows had one sponsor who made sure the product was pitched and censored anything that might offend consumers of that product, etc.).
At a time of life when most people have either settled into routine, or are going through some kind of midlife crisis, Seeger made a promise to his kids that by the time they were grown the Hudson River that they grew up by, would be clean enough to swim in.
He made that promise when the river was a toxic sewer. Everyone he talked to about cleaning it up said it was impossible, that the corporations that lined its banks and were the main source of the pollution would never change their ways and that the government would never make them.
But he built a beautiful sloop to cruise the river in. He figured it would attract people who’d want to get a closer look at the boat, and when they did, he’d start singing and get them singing (the thing he is best at and displays his humility most, that he cannot give a concert, whether to two people or two hundred thousand, without getting them to sing along with him) and slip in some lyrics about cleaning up the river.
And sure enough, he proved the naysayers wrong. Not by force, not through connections, not by the use of any political or financial power, just through the music and his personal example.
Kind of reminds me a bit of Obama’s power to move an audience and set an example, not perfectly and not through music, but through the power of belief, that an overwhelming, seemingly impossible change can occur, if you get people to believe in it and take action on it and persuade others to do the same.