|From The Author|
If, as the current thinking goes, our
Great Depression did not end until America entered World War II, the
mid 1930's were lean economic times. It was also a time when
storm clouds were spreading over the world: totalitarianism was on
the rise and armies were taking to the field.
People here lived in cities. These were filled with viable neighborhoods, but neighborhoods divided along ethnic and racial lines.
Not yet challenged by a full blown civil rights movement, racism was - if not more virulent - at least more open. Blacks played baseball in a league of their own. Boxing was also segregated, but not so totally. Except in the South, where mixed matches were outlawed, the segregation that existed was de facto, not de jure. The two best and most popular fighters in the world, Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong, were both black. And neither had much trouble winning titles. In fact, Armstrong held three titles simultaneously. Louis and Armstrong were so exceptional Ring recently chose them as two of the four greatest fighters in the 75 year history of the magazine (the other two being Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali). And they had majestic personalities to match their athletic skill. Generally speaking though, the road to the top was far rockier for the black pugilist.
Boxing took place mostly in small clubs before small crowds. There was no television to stir public outcries even for the most skilled fighters. And what skilled fighters the black stars of the period were. But with only boxing writers and a few hard core fans to trumpet their skills, these men performed in what ESPN would later characterize as "the shadows".
Nat Fleischer wrote a monumental, seven volume series on some of them, titled Black Dynamite. Published in 1939, Volume IV in the series covered "The Story of the Negro in the Prize Ring from 1782-1938". It left no doubt as to the ability of the black man to compete in the squared circle. In his preface, Fleischer, the greatest of boxing's historians, declared: "It was a period when the threat of colored supremacy in the world of glovedom was becoming very definite indeed". The black fighters of this period, including Jack Johnson, Sam Langford, Sam McVey, and Joe Jeannette, were so good they "were compelled to fight one another again and again". This trend would continue throughout the career of Charley Burley, who has been compared with Sam Langford. He and those he fought "again and again" were worthy successors to the noble warriors Nat Fleischer celebrated. Happily, as intolerance in sports declined, and as television gave the world a ringside seat, ability, not color, became the key to success.
|Allen Rosenfeld April 4, 1998|
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