With tributes from the president of the United States and clergymen of many faiths, with military honors and an eloquent eulogy by his son, former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was given a hero's burial yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery.
Nine days after he succumbed to a heart attack in Las Vegas at age 66, Louis was laid to rest in dignified ceremonies attended by public figures and curiosity-seekers, the celebrated and the unknown. In death as in life, he was praised as an enduring champion by the powerful and the powerless alike.
"Our champion changes form, but keeps the crown," said Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader, who recounted the social as well as the sporting impact Louis had in his 11-year reign as world champion, the longest in history. "Even today, he stands at center ring, without challenger or peer."
Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger read a message from President Reagan, who remained at the White House, convalescing from last month's assassination attempt. Reagan last week waived regulations and gave permission for Louis -- an Army sergeant during World War II -- to be buried at Arlington.
"This is a statement . . . which he very much wished to deliver in person today," Weinberger told approximately 600 mourners who attended funeral services in the Memorial Chapel at Fort Myer, before reading the president's remarks.
Reagan said he "was privileged and grateful to have had Joe Louis as my friend," and called him "one of the most unforgettable Americans of our time.
"Out of the ring, he was a considerate and softspoken man. Inside the ring, his courage, strength and confident skill wrote a unique and unforgettable chapter in sports history. But Joe Louis was more than a sports legend. His career was an indictment of racial bigotry, and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white and black people around the world," Reagan's tribute said.
Louis was praised by Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergymen during the interfaith service. He was lauded for his service during the war, when he fought 96 exhibitions around the world, boosting the morale of 2 million troops, and donated more than $100,000 in purses from two championship fights to Navy and Army relief efforts. He was cited for the dignity with which he held the title and became the first great black idol of a whole generation of Americans, white and black.
Jackson, who delivered the principal eulogy in an earlier funeral service in Las Vegas last week, said, "On April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died. On April 12, 1981, Joe Louis died. Each served his day, two champions of the people who died 36 years apart. Roosevelt was great because he served his day. His challenge was to revive the economy. Joe Louis was great because he served his day. His challenge . . . was to revive our national esteem, our emotional well-being, our self-confidence."
Jackson, a splended orator, roused the congregation, but it was quiet and reserved Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the champion's son, who moved mourners most.
Like the other speakers, Barrow emphasized the brilliant light that made his father an authentic folk hero, not the dark shadows that made his illness- and debt-ridden later years the stuff of tragedy.
"We love you because of your grace, your warmth, the loving care which you provided all of us," said Barrow, who insists that his father was not a pitiable figure in his final years, because he chose and enjoyed his role as a greeter in a Las Vegas casino. "You were a champion because you were accessible. People could walk up to Joe Louis . . . they could walk up to you, Dad . . . and they were able to shake your hand and they felt like they had known you many years.No one wanted to be your acquaintance, Dad. Everybody was your friend. They were your friends because you loved them as friends, and always gave them whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted."
Barrow expressed pride that, despite his father's long and unseemly battle with the U.S. government over back taxes he could not pay, he won the last decision from a grateful nation: an eternal resting place at Arlington, among heroes famous and little-known.
"It's wonderful that we're here at the National Cemetery, where you will finally rest, because you were a patriot, you served the country well, you provided it with the guidance and the faith it needed at a time when the country was down and the people needed a lift," Barrow said softly.
Barrow recalled that during the Vietnam War, when he and so many other Americans had doubts deep in their souls, he talked to his father about that war, and about America.
"You looked at me as you had never looked at me before," he said, glancing down at the flag-draped casket before him, "and you said, 'this is a beautiful country, Son, and it's most important that we stand by it. It may make its mistakes. It may not be exactly right, but we have to stand by it.'
"We are going to miss you an awful lot," Barrow said, his voice barely a whisper now, "because you were the greatest, truly the greatest."
A few minutes later, the congregation that included political and business leaders, Billy Conn (who lost two title fights to Louis), and former heavyweight champions Jersey Joe Walcott, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, left the modern chapel with its wood-beamed ceiling, where television lights had glared and hundreds of cameras had taken final snapshots of Joe Louis.They went out into the sunshine of an idyllic spring afternoon, and joined a procession to Section 7A of Arlington National Cemetery, just down a slope from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
There, on a tranquil plot shaded by majestic trees, with dogwood, magnolia and cherry blossoms in full bloom as a backdrop, Joe Louis was delivered to his final resting place by six Army pallbearers. At 2:40 p.m., Sgt. Washington James, an Army bugler, sounded "Taps." Maj. James Murray took the folded U.S. flag from the casket team and presented it to Martha Louis, the champion's wife.
Moments before, an Army firing party fired three volleys into the peaceful air, a salute signaling the Brown Bomber's last round.