It’s 1948, and Joe Louis is ready to quit boxing. He has been heavyweight champion for more than a decade, longer than any fighter before him. After carrying a near-messianic burden, he gets in touch with Henry Ford II himself to see if he can open a car dealership in Chicago.
Louis’s biographers usually pass over this ambition to sell Fords. If they mention it at all, they say it just didn’t work out, in the way famous boxers’ ventures frequently fail. But a document in a folder archived in the Benson Ford Research Center sums up the reasons why it didn’t work out:
1. Move has political implications. 2. Timing is bad. 3. Additional business may be more than offset by business it may lose us. 4. Will establish precedent hard to stop. 5. Only benefit brief publicity. 6. Publicity on the whole will be unfavorable. 7. Mixed meeting embarrassing or impossible. 8. Competition sure to start whispering campaign. 9. Dealer reaction unfavorable. 10. Jeopardize prestige of Company. 11. Detrimental effect on all dealers.
Those are 11 ways to say, “Joe Louis is Black.”
The file, collated by Ford’s marketing research department, contains 32 letters by dealers and regional and district managers. Many are deeply disturbing, but you can see a few twinges of bad conscience. The documents show the inner workings of mid-century middle-class racism; the entanglement of white supremacy and the business world; the industrial North’s willing submission to the open racism of the South; the way in which profit prevails over fair play; the limits even the most admired Black athletes face when they, to quote contemporary discourse, refuse to “shut up and dribble”; and the arch-reactionary orientation of car dealers, which is unchanged to this day.
Louis was without a doubt the most famous Black man on earth, perhaps the most famous American. At the time, boxing was the global sport. In 1938, when Louis took down Max Schmeling, Hitler’s star boxer, 70,000 watched in Yankee Stadium and 100,000,000 were listening on the wireless—still the largest radio audience for a single event in history. Billed as “the fight of the century,” the alleged throw-down between democracy and fascism lasted just two minutes and four seconds. Louis would later say that Schmeling was the only opponent he ever wanted to hurt.
Louis’s standing in the Black community had been unparalleled since his 1935 defeat of the Italian boxer Primo Carnera, a fight where, according to the twisted logic of racial politics, Louis figured as the African representing Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie to Mussolini’s Carnera. Maya Angelou devoted an entire chapter of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, to that night. Langston Hughes wrote, “No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions—or on mine.” In the saddest of the stories, retold by Martin Luther King Jr., a convicted man called out, “Save me, Joe Louis!” as the gas started to rise in the death chamber. There were a hundred blues songs calling his name.
None of that mattered to the Ford men (they were all men). Their letters belong to the estate of Walker Alonzo Williams, who had become a general sales manager in 1946. Some of them are addressed to Williams himself, while others went to the regional managers or the vice president and director of sales. Louis’s request to sell Fords appears to have sparked nothing less than a crisis, necessitating all hands on deck. The letters intertwine national, regional, and corporate politics. The writers talk about President Harry Truman and the press, their competitors who, the write believe, would make hay of such a move, and their distaste at the thought of having to share a meal with a Black man at a conference. Dictated to secretaries, neither fully public nor private, they reveal racism as white-collar deliberation—the work of men who will sign their name to it, though some mark their letters “personal and confidential.”
They were men of their time, as the saying goes, but 1948 was not just any year in the history of American white supremacy: 1948 was the year of change that wasn’t, of ambitious civil rights reforms that failed, filibustered by Dixiecrats and Republicans. And that, too, makes it into the letters, in evocations of “a principle of American democracy in business” and of “constitutional rights or some such factors.” Some of their rhetorical moves belong to the Jim Crow era. Others remain familiar to this day.
The writers understood that the question was not whether Ford should give a franchise to Louis but whether Ford should give a franchise to a Black man. One dealer wrote that his “reaction is rather vehement for the reason that the Ford business is a white man’s business and we do not want any negroes in it.” Some of them are cagey: They refer to Louis as “this man,” “the party to whom you referred,” “a certain individual,” “the particular installation under consideration,” as if the name “Joe Louis” carried a power they did not want to unleash. Several of them are straightforward: Louis is Black, case closed. “The writer believes that the dealers…would consider it a ‘slap in the face’ to appoint any negro as a Ford dealer,” wrote G.P. Montagnet, a district sales manager from New Orleans. A district manager from Georgia opined that it “is extremely doubtful…if the Ford dealers…would condescend to sit in a dealer meeting or banquet side-by-side with Joe Louis, or any other member of his race.”
Louis wanted to open his dealership in Chicago, but almost all of the responses come from the Southeast and Southwest, and they flex the fact that Fords are overrepresented on Southern roads. In one letter, a writer asserts that “a recent Gallup Poll shows the South to be the most conservative of all sections of the country so far as communists and left wings are concerned.”
American conservatives have a long history of declaring every policy that seeks to further equality “socialist,” “communist,” or “left-wing”—the words as devoid of meaning then as they are now. But beneath them is a white isolationist movement that crested in 1948—the year the Dixiecrats split from the Democrats in response to Truman’s civil rights initiatives seeking to ban housing and employment discrimination. “The Ford Motor Company would be boycotted in the south,” predicts E.S. Alexander of Houston. “We feel certain that we would lose all of the State of South Carolina’s business,” warns North Carolina’s district manager. This, too, is a common strategy: It is always the people just a bit further South who are unreasonable. Michigan points to “the South,” North Carolina to South Carolina, Northern Alabama to Southern Alabama.
Truman loomed large in the minds of the Ford men who feared that he might be able to pass his civil rights legislation. A Memphis dealer claims that “these Southern people…are in a struggle for what they believe is for their very lives.” Robert J. Burke, a district sales manager from Georgia, astutely realizes another Reconstruction might be on the way: “Feeling has risen to a fever pitch in the south, almost to the point of reviving the feud between the north and south which existed during the Reconstruction Period.” Charles R. Beacham, regional manager of Ford South East, wrote, “We…were bluntly told that this would be construed as supporting Harry Truman and the other left wing groups.”
Louis’s managers carefully constructed his image as that of the quintessential apolitical athlete. Joyce Carol Oates wrote in On Boxing (1987): “Unlike his notorious predecessor Jack Johnson and his yet more notorious successor Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis was forced to live his ‘blackness’ in secret.” This is the mainstream view, and it is wrong. From the 1940s onward, Louis’s commitment to civil rights was unwavering, clear, and effective in ways that have been obscured. It was Louis who, during the war, refused to stage matches in segregated Army camps. It was Louis who successfully objected to the fact that Jackie Robinson was neither allowed to play on the Army’s baseball team nor was considered officer material. It was Louis who made sure that the wartime clubs in Britain frequented by white US soldiers could not be off-limits to Black ones, and it was Louis who, together with the star contralto Carol Brice, organized a star-studded benefit in support of Isaac Woodard, the Black veteran blinded by police in the first case of police brutality that garnered national condemnation.
The Ford men had noticed. “While this party has generally conducted himself in a creditable manner, his recent alleged endorsement of Paul Robeson’s activities has caused considerable unfavorable comment,” one man wrote. In general, though, it is instructive how few of the dealers refer to Louis’s public image, his “mythic identity as the ‘good’ American Negro,” in Oates’s words. The ropes of the ring were considered to mark the outer limit of his aspirations, and whatever respect he had earned as a fighter did not count for much the moment he sought recognition beyond its confines. Whatever good will his war efforts had elicited dried up when the war ended, and it was time to relegate women back to domestic work and Black men to manual labor.
A.F. Bauerbach, a district manager in Dearborn, the heart of the Ford empire, squirms: If “factors should be given consideration such as human relations, constitutional rights or some such factors, then we would probably have to change our decision.” As a good American capitalist, he quickly adds, “We should continue to look at this case from a business standpoint only.” Bad conscience flares up frequently in the correspondence, but it is just not an opportune moment to make the moral choice: “If we wish to pioneer a principle of American democracy in business, of the nature of an appointment of this kind, again it is my opinion that this is not the proper time nor the proper party involved.” O.F. Yando writes from Indianapolis: “It is our opinion that this situation will be accepted as normal in the far distant future (perhaps not in our lifetime).” They speak, in King’s words, like the man “who believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”
The “principle of American democracy” and “constitutional rights or some such” must be subordinated to “business,” a word that shows up 38 times in the file. And everybody is certain that Louis would be bad for business. That is almost certainly nonsense. The Big Three had all but suspended car manufacture during the war, and every dealer had a waiting list. If you had a new Ford, you could sell a new Ford. Between 1948 and 1949, the company more than tripled production, from 488,235 to 1,493,134 vehicles, and every one of the correspondents knew both that there was ravenous demand and that there would soon be enough cars to go around.
If Louis had gotten his car dealership, there would have easily been 50,000 people at the opening, and as long as he would have been there to shake hands and trade stories, he would have cornered the Black market in the region. The real worry was not that a Louis dealership would fail but that it would succeed.
That fact is the drumbeat of the file. I.B. Groves, a regional manager in Kansas, wrote, “You asked whether such an appointment would establish a precedent for such similar appoints.” Allowing Louis to sell cars
would definitely set a precedent which might be difficult to combat in future years…. The consensus of these dealers is that this might set a precedent which would create a demand for other similar appointments in the future…. It would establish a precedent and would compel us to appoint others, and the writer is afraid of the reaction it would have in the South and in many other sections of the country.
“Precedent” is not just the fear that Black Americans will not stay put; it is code for competition. The simplest way to maintain white supremacy—and the most effective one—is to not allow anybody else to compete.
Pursued by the IRS for outstanding tax debt, declared unfit to sell the cars he had helped to build as a teenager, Louis saw no choice but to keep boxing. He lost his last fight in 1951, became addicted to drugs, and lived his last years as a greeter in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. He died in 1981, at the age of 66. Max Schmeling, on the other hand, was granted the exclusive license to distribute in Northern Germany the one product more iconically American than Ford: Coca-Cola. He died at age 99, a rich and honored man.
Ford would not integrate its dealerships until years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Ever since, Ford, like other car companies, has made half-hearted efforts to diversify its dealerships. But in 2019, according to the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers, just 5.2 percent of Ford dealerships were owned by members of racial or ethnic minorities; a mere 56 of the 3,173 dealerships were in Black hands. Ford ranks 16th out of the 25 companies surveyed in minority representation.