First things first. Despite what some may think, the one thing the Joe Louis fist is NOT about is the city vs. suburb divide.
Let’s take a page from the history books. Let me take you to 1936. Adolf Hitler was solidly in power in Europe. The Nazi regime was spewing hatred around the world. Part of that misinformation campaign was to rise up “racially perfect” athletes to show the “superiority” of the Aryan race. Boxer Max Schmeling became, for awhile, his poster boy.
In his first fight with Detroiter Joe Louis, Schmeling won, leading to reams of propaganda about the superiority of the Aryan race. Although Schmeling himself was not a member of the Nazi party, the German government took many steps to ensure his compliance, like not allowing his family to travel with him.
But come 1938, the tables were about to turn. In an epic battle set against the backdrop of Hitler’s march into Austria, a record audience of 70 million tuned their radio dials to listen to the fight where Joe Louis defeated Schmeling, again disproving Nazi theories.
The 8,000-lb., 24-foot long Robert Graham statue was a gift from Sports Illustrated (A Time Inc. publication) to the city in 1987. It was meant to commemorate that fight, which was an immense moral victory for our country in one of our darkest times. It also minted pugilist Joe Louis into who some believe to be the first African-American national hero.
The president at the time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, purportedly said, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat the Nazis.” This statue shows that raw power.
We may never know the artist’s intentions. He worked in almost complete secrecy while creating his work in California. One thing to note is that corporate commissioned art (which this was) was very big in the 1980s and a modernist sensibility, which were probably influenced in the design.
Also, one of the reasons some believe the fist faces toward Canada is to show America fought for democracy outside of its borders during WWII.
In a different city or with a different mayor other than the lighting-rod Coleman A. Young at the time, it’s very possible the Joe Louis fist wouldn’t have become (to some) the statuary embodiment of the racial politics challenging our region and city (as well as our nation). But maybe it’s because some of us are of a different generation or mindset that we think differently. After all, focusing on what divides us hasn’t produced the best results. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again … and expecting a different outcome.
This is a story bigger than ourselves, our petty differences or our region. The Joe Louis fist will always represent freedom, America and the tireless fight for equality.
Note: If you want a t-shirt with the fist on it, there’s a metro Detroit company called “Fist of Detroit Apparel.” You might want to check it out.