Remembering Joe Louis

Portrait of Joe Louis, Greenwood Lake, N.Y., before the Nova fight

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection

Thirty-six years ago today, Joe Louis died in Las Vegas at age 66. Fittingly, he made his final public appearance at a fight: the night before, he was on hand to watch heavyweight champion Larry Holmes beat Trevor Berbick at Caesars Palace. The next morning, Louis was dead of a heart attack. His passing prompted an outpouring of affection and tributes from Americans, white and black, whom he had inspired with his courage, fighting skill, patriotism, and decency. "We love your name, Joe," Jesse Jackson said, eulogizing him, then urged a congregation of 3,000 mourners: "Let's hear it for the champ! Let's give the champ a big hand!"

"How he fared in the ring mattered more to black Americans than the fate of any other athlete in any other sport, before or since," wrote Thomas Sowell. "He was all we had."

Perhaps the most eloquent tribute came from President Ronald Reagan, who made an exception to eligibility rules so that Louis, who had served in the army during World War II, could be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.