JOE LOUIS AND THE BAHÁ'Í TEACHING PLAN
Joe Louis(1914-1981) was ranked as the No. 1 contender for the heavyweight champion of the world in 1935 and that year he won the Associated Press' "Athlete of the Year" award. What was considered to be a final tune-up bout before an eventual title shot for Louis was scheduled for 19 June 1936 against former world heavyweight champion Max Schmeling. By exploiting Louis's habit of dropping his left hand low after a jab, Schmeling handed Louis his first professional loss. He knocked Louis out in Round 12 at Yankee Stadium on 19 June 1936. Two months later, on 18 August 1936, Louis knocked out former champion Jack Sharkey. In that summer of 1936 the North American Baha’is had just begun to make their first efforts to implement ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Divine Plan in their first systematic teaching program. His Plan has been implemented in a series of organized campaigns which I have been associated with for nearly sixty years.
On 22 June 1937, more than one year into the implementation of that Plan, Louis defeated James Braddock by knockout in Round 8. Louis's ascent to the world heavyweight title was complete. Louis's victory was a seminal moment in African American history. Thousands of African Americans stayed up all night across the country to watch the fight. Louis inflicted constant punishment on Braddock. Noted author, and member of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, celebrating the event described Louis's effect in these terms:
“Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years, even before he became champion, thousands of coloured Americans on relief and poor would throng out into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe's one-man triumphs. No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions – or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too.”(1)
On 30 August 1937 Louis and British Empire Champion Tommy Farr touched gloves at New York's Yankee Stadium before a crowd of approximately 32,000. Louis fought one of the hardest battles of his life. The bout was closely contested and went the entire 15 rounds with Louis being unable to knock Farr down. Louis won a controversial unanimous decision. Time Magazine described the scene thus: “After collecting the judges' votes, referee Arthur Donovan announced that Louis had won the fight on points.”
The rematch between Louis and Schmeling is one of the most famous boxing matches of all time, and is remembered as one of the major sports events of the 20th century. Following his defeat of Louis in 1936, Schmeling became a national hero in Germany. Schmeling's victory over an African American was touted by Nazi officials as proof of their doctrine of Aryan superiority. When the rematch was scheduled, Louis retreated to his boxing camp in New Jersey and trained incessantly for the fight. A few weeks before the bout, Louis visited the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt told him, "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany." Louis later admitted: "I knew I had to get Schmeling good. I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me."
When Schmeling arrived in New York in June 1938 for the rematch he was accompanied by a Nazi party publicist who issued statements that a black man could not defeat Schmeling. The publicist also said that, when Schmeling won, the prize money would be used to build tanks in Germany.
On the night of June 22, 1938, Louis and Schmeling met for the second time in the boxing ring. The fight was held in Yankee Stadium before a crowd of 70,043. It was broadcast by radio to millions of listeners throughout the world, with radio announcers reporting on the fight in English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. The fight lasted two minutes and four seconds. Louis battered Schmeling with a series of swift attacks, forcing Schmeling against the ropes and giving him a paralyzing body blow. Schmeling was knocked down three times and only managed to throw two punches in the entire bout.(2)
My father, who loved boxing and with whom I watched boxing matches back in the 1950s and 1960s before he died and had a Bahá'í funeral, was 48 years old in 1938 and had 27 years of his own life’s battles yet to go. He was just about to meet my mother whom he married in 1943. -Ron Price with thanks to (1) Wikipedia and (2) “The Fight: Part 2,” 10:00-11:00 p.m., SBS2 TV, 25 February 2010.
All of this boxing history took place
in the years surrounding the beginning
of the relationship between my father
and mother and the opening of that
Bahá'í teaching Plan in 1937 which
was a fight of immense proportions,
requiring a force, a gigantic task, and
a concentration of resources that
summoned to its aid all the faith,
the determination and the energies
of North American Bahá’ís in an
effort of single-mindedness to attain
still greater heights of mighty exertions
for the Cause of Faith and Bahá'u'lláh.(1)
(1) Shoghi Effendi, “Letter 30 May 1936,” Messages to America: 1932-1946, Bahá'í Publishing Committee, Wilmette, 1947, p.7.