One by one, they filed slowly past the gold colored casket where the Brown Bomber lay. They were young and old, black and white. Clothed in suits and dresses, blue jeans and jogging outfits, they stood silently at his casket. Many bowed their heads. Others carried pocket cameras and snapped their last picture of Joe Louis, the man they had come to love.
"That's the great Brown Bomer," Moses Quarles said as he leaned forward to get a better view of Louis in his folded hands and an American flag beside his head. "There will never be another man like him. He was one of a kind."
Several thousands Washingtonians, tourists and others filed through the red-carpeted Ninetheenth Street Baptist Church at 16th and Crittenden streets NW yesterday to get one last glance at Louis, who will be buried today in Arlington National Cemetery. McGuire Funeral Service selected the church for the last viewing of Louis here because its own facility is too small. And the crowds walked past the body for eight hours.
"He was the greatest," said Milton Hamilton, who recalled growing up in Foggy Bottom and listening to Louis' fights on radio. "When he got a man in trouble, that was it. Billy Conn boxed him for 13 rounds and thought he had him. But Louis knocked him out.
"Those were the days," Hamilton remembered. "There were fights on Monday night, Wednesday night and Friday night. People would gather around the radio and root for Joe Louis [when he was fighting]. And when he won, this town would be jumping. My mother used to go outside and beat on a dish pan with a stick every time he won. People would honk their [car] horns."
Hamilton and others said Louis was the hero for blacks in the 1930s and 1940s. "He was the [Muhammad] Ali of our time," said William G. Johnson, who took his last pictures of Louis for his scrapbook.
Louis P. Diggs, a former nightclub entertainer, remembers performing for Louis at private parties in Washington whenever the former heavyweight boxing champion came to town. "He was one of our black heroes," he said. "But when you were in a room with him, he was just like ordinary people."
"There are only two men in life I respect -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Joe Louis," said Sheck L. Wright, a taxicab driver who stopped by the church to view the champ's body. "He [Louis] was the champion of the world. You couldn't buy him.That [championship] belt meant more to him than money."
Wright recalled the 1938 title fight between Louis and Max Schmeling of Germany, in which Louis avenged an earlier loss to Schmeling in a nontitle bout in 1936. Louis sent Schmeling to the canvas three times in the first round before the referee stopped the fight at 2:04.
"He floored him," Wright said with a smile.
Wright said Louus gave willingly of him money and donated the purse from two fights in 1942 to the Naval Relief Fund and the Army Relief Fund.
"Money didn't mean nothing to Joe Louis," he said.
While some spoke of Louis as a hero to blacks, others quickly pointed out that he was hero to all Americans.
"He's an American folk hero," said Alexander Powell. "I figured every American remembers him for some deed."
"I had to come to see him," said Peter Hadeed, dressed in jogging shorts, a T-shirt and jacket. "He was more than a boxer to me."
Hadeed, who is from Jerusalem, said he has eight-millimeter films of Louis' fights in his collection of films, books and articles on heavyweight boxing bouts that date back to 1905.
Emily Ransome said she lived next door to Louis in the early 1940s in Detroit. "He used to beat that bean bag in his back yard. He was nice and pleasant. He never said too much. He would just speak and keep going. I was tickled to death when he made it [to heavyweight champion].
"It's a lot of people who cared about him," said Ransome, who leaned on a crutch as she viewed Louis' body.
While the older people recalled fond memories of the past, the young ones in the crowd seemed to have learned quite a bit about Louis.
"I read about him in books," said 11-year-old Howard Franklin who was in line with his mother. "He was a boxer and they called him the Brown Bomber."
Franklin said he was the 10-year-old boxing champion at his neighborhood recreation center until he lost last summer. "Boxing too tough," said the youth, who now has decided he wants to be a baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"He was a great person," sid Terrence Holt, a 16-year-old Northwest Washington youth. "I'm glad he is being buried in Arlington Cemetery."