'Monument To Joe Louis': 25 Years Later, Detroit Fist Sculpture Still Incites Controversy

Detroit's Most Contentious Symbol

More than 25 years after its creation, the giant bronze fist that hangs in downtown Detroit is still a controversial, complicated symbol to Detroiters.

"Monument to Joe Louis," the 8,000-pound, 24-foot-long sculpture, honors boxer Joe Louis, who grew up in Black Bottom, a former African-American neighborhood on Detroit's east side. Lewis was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1937 to 1950. He is largely regarded as the first African American to become a national hero, with his 1938 defeat of the German boxer Max Schmeling coming to symbolize both the breaking of racial barriers and the rise of American power leading up to World War II. The celebrated hero died in 1981.

"What my father did was enable white America to think of him as an American, not as a black," his son, Joe Louis Jr., told ESPN. "By winning, he became white America's first black hero."

Detroit's fist monument was sculpted by the late artist Robert Graham for the City of Detroit, paid for by a $350,000 commission from Sports Illustrated magazine.

In 1999, Graham told the Detroit News, "People bring their own experiences to the sculpture. I wanted to leave the image open, allowing it to become a symbol rather than make it specific."

And open it is -- the sculpture has incited a wide range of responses. Confusion is one, as demonstrated in an opening line from a Oct. 1986 LA Times article chronicling impressions of the monument at its unveiling. The paper quotes a "bewildered" woman named Barbara Jackson:

"I know money is tight, but you would think the city could have afforded a whole statue," she said.

The power of the fist, the way it hangs and the direction it points lead to varying interpretations. Why doesn't it have a boxing glove? Is it aimed at the South, or at Canada? What is it fighting? People have claimed it evokes everything from lynching to the black power movement.

Michelle McKinney, librarian and assistant archivist at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and one of the organizers of the 2009 "Joe Louis: Home Town Hero" exhibit, believes the monument falls short of representing a figure who signifies so much to Detroiters.

"Joe Louis had a very generous spirit," McKinney said. "The fist, to me, didn't capture that. It focused on him as a marketable commodity. ... Yeah, he had an iron fist. But it left out so much of the community man who existed for the black community and the American community."

"He was gentle. He was a philanthropist, he was funny, he knew the blues ... he was a ladies man," McKinney explained. "I think his heart and his persona were just as important."

Shirley Woodson, president of the National Council of Artists' Michigan chapter, which supports African-American artists, agrees that the statue is missing something.

"I think it's a depiction of one aspect of this very great person, like taking Jessie Owen's leg," she said, referring to the Olympic runner. "Fortunately there's another [monument] at the Joe Louis Arena," Detroit's professional hockey rink and stadium.

A representational statue of Louis located in Cobo Center, next to the Joe Louis Arena, was made by African American sculptor Ed Hamilton as a counter to "the fist."

Native Detroiter Dr. Victoria Gallagher, who co-authored "Sparring with Public Memory: The Rhetorical Embodiment of Race, Power, and Conflict in the 'Monument to Joe Louis,'" explained the difference between the sculptures.

"The African American community ... the older generations, have really tended to prefer highly representational works to commemorate African-American history and heroes," Gallagher said. "The fact that you have to have three different ways to commemorate this person says something really important about the city and how they have come to terms with this person."

Still others see the fist statue as a powerful representation of Detroit.

"I don't see violence in this sculpture; I see a bullheaded determination," said Celeste Headlee in a 2009 NPR essay. "Joe Louis, like many Detroiters, took his blows. But Louis endured, and he did it with style."

In recent years, the fist has been used as a prideful symbol of the city's determination. A quintessential example is the lauded 2011 Chrysler Super Bowl commercial. The camera pans by the fist statue as a narrator says, "It's the hottest fires that make the hardest steel."

"It's now being put to another purpose, to emphasise the edginess of Detroit … the creative energy," Gallagher said.

Even Woodson, who does not like the statue from an aesthetic perspective, agreed it has power.

"It's become an icon," she said. "There are a lot of people who really identify with it."

Gallagher says the fist's power stems from its very tension and open-endedness.

"It's been re-appropriated so many times and will continue to be appropriated," she said. "I think that's because it is disembodied and therefore highly interpretative."

The image of the fist gets used on everything from t-shirts to laptop decals, and was used in a 2012 downtown window display to show off watches.

The sculpture also has been used in more loaded contexts. The Detroit Free Press said the fist would be turned to face up Woodward Avenue, as a "fist bump for regionalism" in a 2010 April Fool's joke riffing on city-suburban relations. In 2004, it was defaced with white paint in a protest of the deaths of white police officers, an action some considered a hate crime.

"It's going to keep getting used by people for cultural projection purposes ... politicized, racialized and commodified," Gallagher said.

"It's arresting, and it's going to continue to have this arresting power," she added. "There's always this effort to tame it and to neutralize its power ... but it can always be reanimated."

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