Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Save me, Joe Louis!"

Recalling an execution he read about in Florida, Grant Wiggins thought about the "boy" being dragged to the electric chair. The boys continually screamed, "Please, Joe Louis, help me. Please help me. Help me" (91). Louis never came, and the boy, jolted by the electric current, died. In his 1964 book Why We Can't Wait, Martin Luther King Jr. related the same story, albeit with the gas chamber instead of the electric chair:
More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.
The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: "Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis..." (129)
Continuing, King states that the boy's helplessness led him to look for someone who cared and he called out to Joe Louis, "[n]ot God, not government, not charitably minded white men, but a Negro who was the world's most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope" (129). This event, however, never actually happened.

In a November 7, 2005 article entiled "Save me, Joe Louis!" for the Los Angeles Times, David Margolick talks about the true story behind this apocryphal anecdote. It turns out that story originated with an article in The Daily Worker that recorded the execution of Allen Foster, a 19 year old North Carolinian charged with the rape of a white woman in 1936.While chained to the chair in the gas chamber, wearing boxing shorts and shivering with cold, Foster did not call out, "Save me, Joe Louis!" Instead, he spoke of sparring with Louis in Birmingham, AL before Louis became famous. Margolick, in Beyond Glory: Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, mentions that no record indicates that Louis visited Birmingham when Foster claimed that he did and that Foster's mom said her son was "half crazy."    

What does all of this say about the construct of myths and their importance? Obviously Joe Louis held a place in the African American consciousness as I've talked about before. Could that be the reason why The Daily Worker chose to have Foster call out to Louis before his execution? Why does Gaines include a form of this story in A Lesson before Dying? Is it because the community saw Louis as a hero and vicariously defeated oppression when he won? All of these are questions worth thinking about and exploring. As usual, post comments below.



Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson before Dying. New York:Vintage Books, 1993. Print.
King Jr, Martin Luther. Why We Can't Wait. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. Print.

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