February 26, 2004

A True Hero Is Defaced in Detroit

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The greatest thing about sports is that every once in a while, an athlete will rise above his station to influence all of humanity. Jesse Owens, Arthur Ashe, Lance Armstrong — these athletes and those like them have transcended sport and become heroes. Not “athletic” heroes. Just heroes.

Joe Louis is a hero. He was one of the greatest boxers of all time, Ali before Ali was Ali. In 1938, Louis knocked out German heavyweight Max Schmeling for the world heavyweight title with nearly the entire nation listening. Towns shut down because everyone was at home, crowded around the radio cheering on the kid from Detroit.

Joe Louis is a hero. The bout against Schmeling was more than a title fight, it was an ideological battle, the first skirmish of what would become WWII. Schmeling, though not a Nazi himself, was Hitler’s handpicked champion, a privileged blond-haired blue-eyed Aryan and a very good boxer. Louis was a poor black kid with the hopes of an entire nation — not a “black” nation or a “white” nation, just a nation — strapped across his broad shoulders.

Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round. Hitler lost seven years later.

Joe Louis is a hero. He stood up to the horror of Nazism and won. He represented the best aspects of our nation on a worldwide stage, and yet could not outbox the worst. His quick jab may have won a victory for freedom and equality, but there were still restaurants that Louis couldn’t eat in, buses he couldn’t take, and schools his children couldn’t attend.

It’s been decades since the Civil Rights Act ended segregation and, while true racial equality remains elusive, our country has made great strides in the right direction. But every once in a while, we take a giant step backward.

Joe Louis is a hero. But on Monday night in Detroit, the bronze statue commemorating his life was vandalized. The monument — a sculpture of Louis’s fist raised in victory — was covered with white spray paint. A picture of two recently slain Detroit police officers was left at the base of the statue, signed “Courtesy of The Fighting Whities.”

The most atrocious part of this sad tale (aside from the sheer stupidity of the name “The Fighting Whities”) is that the two suspects, Brett Cashman and John Price, contend that their action was not racially motivated.

“One of them has alluded to the fist being representative of violence in Detroit,” said police department spokesman Glen Woods.

Violence in Detroit?

First of all, no sane human would contend that a fist with a boxing glove is the catalyst for Detroit’s skyrocketing murder rate. The suspect responsible for killing the two Detroit police officers is thought to be black, the statue of a black hero — not a hero, but now made a “black” hero — is covered with white paint. It what universe is this crime not racially motivated?

How closed-minded and intolerant do you have to be to think that a monument to a black man is in any way emblematic of criminals — not just “black” criminals, but criminals? I guess you’d have to be as closed-minded and intolerant as a nation that held up African-American athletes as national icons, only to then deny them the very liberty and equality that their victories championed. Sixty years ago, we stood behind Joe Louis and Jesse Owens as they competed against Nazi Germany for the glory of Freedom, but welcomed them home with the closed arms of prejudice and lynch mobs.

We as a society are still selectively colorblind, seeing an individual like Joe Louis as either a man or a “black” man depending on the situation. Donovan McNabb becomes a “black” quarterback when he loses two straight games; Slyvester Croom and Tyrone Willingham are the first “black” head coaches in the history of their respective universities.

Sports has always been the one stage where bigotry breaks down. Not even the most delusional Klu Klux Klan member can explain away Jackie Robinson, Bob Gibson, Wilt Chamberlain, Evelyn Ashford, Muhammed Ali, or Michael Jordan. And that’s just to name a few. Wait, let me go on. John Carlos, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jim Brown, Barry Bonds, Grant Fuhr, Michael Vick. What about Cornell’s own Ka’Ron Barnes or Marcus Blanks? To qualify these athletes with the term “black” is to be dismissive of their successes. Their accomplishments transcend their sports, transcend nationalities, transcend races. How easily some of us forget.

Joe Louis is a hero; Cashman and Price are fools. Not just “white” fools, but fools. Their epic stupidity has transcended the petty organization they belong to, transcended their nationality, transcended their race. I hope that they are locked away, along with all hollow individuals who are scared of the day when all “black” men are seen as, simply, men.


Archived article by Per Ostman