From the ring to the course: How legendary boxing champion Joe Louis fought for diversity in golf

By Bob Denney
Published on
From the ring to the course: How legendary boxing champion Joe Louis fought for diversity in golf

Legendary heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis became one of the most influential amateur golfers in American history. Louis’s sincere love of golf, coupled with his competitiveness to improve his game, led to him supporting a crusade for diversity in golf.

Born Joe Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914, near Lafayette, Alabama, he and his family moved to Detroit, Michigan, when Louis was a teenager. He would hold the heavyweight boxing crown title for more than 11 years, recording 25 successful defenses. Louis began playing golf in 1935 and later became a major supporter of the United Golf Association (UGA), the African American organization that conducted tournaments nationwide.

He competed as an amateur, and in the 1940 Eastern Open drew a gallery of several thousand at Langston Golf Course in Washington, D.C., a year after the opening of the country’s first public course built expressly for African American golfers.

In 1941, in his hometown of Detroit, Louis sponsored the Joe Louis Open. He not only donated a $1,000 purse, but paid the entry fees and transportation costs of golfers who otherwise could not afford to pay. The tournament was suspended during World War II, when Louis served as a U.S. Army sergeant, but resumed after the war with a $2,000 purse.

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Louis announced that he would concentrate on golf when he retired. However, financial pressures kept him fighting until 1951. One of Louis’s ambitions was to win the most prestigious title in African American golf, the amateur division of the National, or “Negro National,” the centerpiece of the UGA schedule. After several attempts, Louis won the 1951 title. He also became more outspoken about discriminatory practices in golf.

In 1952, Louis was invited to play in the San Diego Open, but the PGA’s “Caucasian-only” membership clause in its bylaws prevented such an entry. Louis confronted tournament officials and after an emergency meeting, Louis was allowed to compete as an exempt amateur. Louis wasn’t the only African American golfer attempting to enter that week. His friend, professional Bill Spiller had qualified, but was not allowed to play.

Louis became the first person of color to compete in a PGA-sanctioned event. The New York Times reported on Jan. 16, 1952, that Louis said that he would continue his fight “to eliminate racial prejudice from golf, the last sport in which it now exists.”

Louis posted a first-round 76, while playing in a group that included two-time Masters Champion and PGA President Horton Smith, who had a 73. The next day after Louis turned in an 82 and Smith a 78, both missed the 36-hole cut. But Louis had set the precedent of a non-Caucasian in a PGA-sponsored event.

For Louis, his experience of quietly fighting for persons of color on the golf course was the same as during World War II when he stood up for Jackie Robinson and other black soldiers who were denied officer candidacy in the Army. Louis made the call to Truman Gibson, a Chicago attorney and special advisor to the Secretary of War on racial affairs. Robinson and the black soldiers were accepted.

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The exclusionary PGA membership clause would not be eradicated for nine more years. The turning point came during a casual round at Hillcrest Country Club when Spiller was playing with entertainer Billy Eckstine. Club member Harry Braverman, whom Spiller had once caddied, served as intermediary for California Attorney General Stanley Mosk.

Mosk issued a moratorium on the use of California courses by the PGA until it ceased discriminating against non-whites. He also corresponded with other state attorneys general, seeking their assistance in applying pressure on the PGA.

On Nov. 10, 1961, at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, the PGA Annual Meeting’s agenda became historic. The Georgia-Alabama delegation co-sponsored the amendment, adopted by a vote of 87-0, to remove the discriminatory bylaw that had existed since 1934.

Louis was 66 when he died the Sunday of the 1981 Masters. On a special order from President Reagan, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

His son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., would become a national spokesman for diversity in golf and retired in 2017 after serving 18 years as CEO of The First Tee. On Nov. 15, 2009, at the PGA’s Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louis was bestowed Honorary Membership. It was the same evening that Black Pioneers John Shippen Jr., Bill Spiller and Ted Rhodes received posthumous PGA Membership.

“They say that you can’t turn back time,” said then-PGA President Jim Remy, “but you can do your very best to make it right.”