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Joe Louis: Breaking The Color Barrier In Golf

His real name was Joseph Louis Barrow. His parents were the children of former slaves. The world knew him as Joe Louis, nicknamed “The Brown Bomber.” He was a prize fighter who reigned from 1937-1949 as the world heavyweight boxing champion.

Joe Louis had retired from boxing by 1952. He was age 38. The fight game wasn’t the only sport where Louis excelled. He was a 2 handicap golfer. When he wanted to compete in the San Diego Open that year, an event sponsored by the Professional Golfers Association, the PGA president Horton Smith denied his entry into the field of golfers.

Joe Louis knew how to fight, and he entered the fray by speaking out to the press about this public humiliation and injustice.

“This is the last major sport in America in which Negroes are barred,” he told THE LOS ANGELES SENTINEL.

“I want people to know what the PGA is,” Louis said to THE NEW YORK TIMES. “We’ve got another Hitler to get by.”

“It’s about time that it is brought out into the open,” he told the LOS ANGELES TIMES.

Another trail blazer and friend, Jackie Robinson, who crashed the color barrier in the sport of baseball, sent messages of support to encourage Louis in his fight. And he won the first round. The PGA was being humiliated in the press because the campaign of Joe Louis, long a national hero for his historic triumph over the face of the supposed German master race Max Schmeling  in the ring, had aroused overwhelming public support

On January 17, 1952, with the help of a sponsor’s exemption, and because he was an amateur, Joe Louis became the first golfer to compete in a major PGA sanctioned event. His opening round was a four over par 76.

The sponsors exemption worked liked this: Sponsors of the tournament, in this case the Chevrolet dealers of San Diego County, were allowed to invite ten amateurs to compete. Joe Louis was not a professional golfer. The PGA rule that excluded Negroes applied only to professionals, thus exempting Louis, as stated in their bylaws: “Any professional golfer of the Caucasian race over 18 years of age and residing in North or South America is eligible to become a PGA member.”

Louis did not make the cut after the first three rounds, but continued arguing for the alteration of PGA bylaws that excluded non-whites from entering tournaments. In doing so he was instrumental in integrating the game of golf.

Joe Louis later was involved in founding The First Tee, which was a charity that aided underprivileged children in learning about the game of golf. Then Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., served as CEO of this organization through 2017.

The PGA bestowed posthumous honorary membership to Joe Louis, a fighter who quietly did great things throughout his life.