‘Save me, Joe Louis’: MLK had it wrong

“One of the stock stories about Louis… is apocryphal — that a young black man on death row in North Carolina cried out, ‘Save me, Joe Louis! Save me, Joe Louis!’ as he was asphyxiated.

” ‘Not 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,’ Martin Luther King Jr.  wrote about the episode [in “Why We Can’t Wait” (1963)].

“In fact, 19-year-old Allen Foster, the first man to die in the state’s new gas chamber in January 1936, said no such thing, nor had the room been miked, as King claimed. Instead, chained down in the frigid room, wearing only a pair of boxing shorts and speaking through glass that forced eyewitnesses to read his lips, Foster apparently told of sparring with Louis as a boy in Birmingham, clenching and moving his fists to demonstrate. Twice prior to the execution he’d told reporters the same thing.

“But there is no record of young Louis ever having been in Birmingham, let alone fighting anyone there, and even Foster’s mother conceded that her son was ‘half-crazy.’ The embroidered version may date from a story in the Daily Worker a month later, and it probably took hold because it seemed so plausible. ‘I’m in death row, and I got only six more weeks to go,’ stated a letter Louis did receive from a black inmate in a Southern penitentiary in the summer of 1935. ‘Your picture hanging on the wall will make me feel better as I wait for the electric chair.’ ”

— From “Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink” by David Margolick (2005)