Born Joseph Louis Barrow, Joe Louis, or the Brown Bomber, became the most famous black man since Jack Johnson and was the most popular black athlete in America until Mohamed Ali.

At seventeen while working in an automobile factory he began to take boxing lessons. After a few bouts which earned him more than a month’s wages, he decided to fully pursue the sport and turned professional. He learned to go for knockouts, rather than judges’ decisions, because organized crime regularly bought off judges. He worked his way up to a title shot and in eight rounds defeated James Braddock to become heavyweight champion; the first black champion in more than 20 years.

Possibly his most important fight though was against German Max Schmeling. They had originally fought in 1936 and Schmeling won. However, the second fight in 1938 was an even bigger occasion. Not only did Max Schmeling represent the Nazi theories of white superiority, but by the time of their second fight Germany’s increasing belligerence in Europe had created additional tensions. Before the match, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had spoken to Louis, telling him that America “needed muscles like [his] to beat Germany.”

Because the fight was about nationalism, even white Americans were strongly supporting Louis. Two minutes and four seconds into the first round, Schmeling was down for the count. Much of the goodwill and tolerance toward blacks in sports that began in the 1940s owed its origins to Joe Louis as the first widely popular black athlete.

Photo courtesy of Hard Road to Glory, AP/Worldwide Photos