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How Racist Car Dealers KO’d Joe Louis

A never-before-published tranche of letters reveals the white-collar racism that prevented the world’s most popular athlete from selling Fords.

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.