They came to a tin warehouse, but they left from a church. They came to say a sad goodbye to Joe Lewis, but they left clapping hands in joy and waving to the champ. Maybe 2,500 people in blue jeans and shorts and evening gowns and tuxedos came to a funeral service for an old sick man. But they left from a celebration for a hero, a black man who rose from a cotton field, a hero who lifted a nation to his shoulders.
The night before, Muhammad Ali sat in the dark of his hotel room and spoke of death.
"I wish people like Joe Louis and people I love didn't die before me," he said. He whispered the words. "I want to die before them. I don't think I could stand to see my son in a casket. Joe Louis, my, my. Whatever I said before, I don't mean it, 'cause Joe Louis was the greatest. And now he's gone on to a better life. He has passed all the tests for him on earth to go to paradise."
More than once Ali has said he didn't want to wind up the way Joe Louis did. Poor Joe. Poor, broke, sick Joe.
"I never said that, not that way, anyhow. That's demeaning. Look at Joe's life. Everybody loved Joe. He would have been marked as evil if he was evil, but everybody loved Joe. From black folks to red-neck Mississippi crackers, they loved him. They're all crying. That shows you. Howard Hughes dies, with all his billions, not a tear. Joe Louis, everybody cried."
Sammy Davis Jr. sang at the funeral services in the Sports Pavilion out back of the Caesars Palace gambling casino, and Frank Sinatra spoke, and Ali and Larry Holmes were pallbearers. "Joe's biggest fight ended a few days ago," Sinatra said. "And I don't know how the refs voted yet, but I lay you 100 to 1 he gets a unanimous decision."
And then Jesse Jackson spoke of poor Joe.
This is the Rev. Dr. Jackson, director of Operations PUSH, once at the side of Martin Luther King -- Jesse Jackson, once a good athlete -- Jesse Louis Jackson, a black preacher born four years after Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship he would keep 11 years.
Poor Joe, for so long a champion, the hero who sent Hitler's lackey home on his knees, the hero who made dreams seem possible. Poor Joe, for so long a piece of tragedy.
Jesse Jackson stood in the middle of a boxing ring today, right behind Joe Louis' casket in the tin warehouse, and Jesse Jackson said there was no such thing as poor Joe.
"We don't identify with the 'poor Joe' stories," he said.
Jackson is Martin Luther King's heir at the pulpit, a preacher whose words become song, whose ideas take flight. He already had said what good things Joe meant to America's black people. "When we were vulnerable and the scent of the Depression was still in our clothes . . . when lynching mobs threatened our existence and we were defenseless without legal, political, economic or military protection, God built a fence around us and Joe was anointed and appointed the gatekeeper. He was our Samson, he was our David who slew Goliath."
All champions, Jackson said, are not heroes. Heroes are born of necessity. "Joe is our hero because he responded when we needed him." Against the darkness of history that was called Hitler, Joe Louis was a star shining brightly when we most needed a light. "God sent Joe from the black race to represent the human race," Jackson said. "He was the answer to the sincere prayers of the disinherited and the dispossessed. Joe made everybody somebody."
There came children named Joseph and Josephine, Louis and Louise. There came a dance called the Joe Louis Shuffle. "When Joe fought Max Schmeling, what was at stake was the ego of a nation and the esteem of a race of people. In a way that politicians and potentates couldn't do, Joe made the lion to lay down with the lamb. He was snatching down the cotton curtain."
So don't tell Jesse Jackson about poor Joe.
There was nothing poor about Joe Louis.
"For the children of '37," Jackson said his voice in full flight now, rising and falling, now filling the warehouse, now a whisper pulling the listeners forward, "who crowded around the radio, hanging from the trees in the fields and watching for the newsreels, they don't understand 'poor Joe.'
"For those who danced in the streets when they heard the referee say 10 and the announcement of a new champ, they don't understand 'poor Joe.'
"For those who danced on tin-top roofs, who ran the streets beating cans with sticks, for those who rang church bells and fell to their knees to pray, and looked at their bosses and suppressed their joy because it was too dangerous to smile, they don't understand . . ."
Now Jackson, by the magic of his song, turned the pejorative into a royal name.
". . . poor Joe."
The preacher smiled, and people put tissues to their eyes.
"For little black children whose little chests expanded and burst their buttons from their raggedy shirts, they don't understand 'poor Joe.'
"Something on the inside said we ought to be free, something on the outside said we can be free.
"Joe, we love your name. To all the witnesses gathered here, you all leave and tell the story. Turn out some more editions -- Extra! Extra! -- the way they used to do.
"Tell the people when you leave here, that Joe Louis is still in the center of the ring without challenger or peer.
"Extra! Extra! Tell them when you leave this place that Joe Louis is too high to reach now. Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The pearl of the black race, the treasure of the human race. You're still the champ, 'poor Joe.'"
Puffing his chest up, Jackson said, "We all feel bigger today because Joe came this way. He was in the slum, but the slum was not in him. Ghetto boy to man, Alabama sharecropper to champion. Let's give Joe a big hand clap. This is a celebration. Let's hear it for the champ. Let's hear it for the champ!"
And it was heard, hands clapping in the tin warehouse of a church, and then the preacher said, "Express yourselves, be glad, he lifted us up when we were down, he made our enemies leave us alone, he made us feel good about ourselves. Wave to Joe now, give the champion a big wave."
Two thousand people, standing now, waved their arms overhead, swaying slowly from side to side.