Life in the D, vol. 2

Our next stop on this virtual tour of Detroit takes us to one of the most controversial and polarizing of all Detroit landmarks: The Fist.

Officially known as the Monument to Joe Louis, the fist is a 24-foot long, 8,000-pound statue located in the middle of Jefferson Avenue. Yep—smack in the middle of the intersection. While a full-body statue of the Brown Bomber is located inside Joe Louis Arena, the Monument to Joe Louis ignores his visage, focusing instead on his forearm and fist—a fitting tribute to a man who won his first 27 pro fights with 23 knockouts.

Donated to the City of Detroit in 1986 by Sports Illustrated, the statue by renowned artist Robert Graham has incited controversy for nearly twenty-years. Is it a testament to a Detroit legend or an in-your-face reminder of the city’s violent past? A symbol of black pride or an unsettling reminder of the racial tensions that culminated in the riots in the summer of 1967 and Detroit’s reputation as the murder capital of the world?

Others simply ask why the fist points at Canada.

Personally, I think the fist is both—you can’t discuss a fighter like Joe Louis without focusing on the raw power of a well-executed punch. I don’t pretend to be a fan of the pugilistic arts, but even I can appreciate that there have been few fighters like Louis, and a full-body statue is too easily ignored. A giant fist in the middle of downtown begs passersby to stop and check it out, thus ensuring that Louis will always be recognized as Detroit’s favorite son.

However, we Detroiters are an inherently cynical bunch, and any attempt to ignore the city’s violent past (and sometimes present) would be even more offensive than a glaringly violent symbol along a main thoroughfare. For better or for worse, the riots of ’67 happened, Detroit was the murder capital of the world, and simply ignoring that will not change history, nor will it change this city’s future. In fact, by remembering what Detroit used to be, we can rejoice in every step we take toward a better Detroit—be it the renovation of Campus Martius Park or this month’s Motor City Music Conference. But we can’t ease Detroit’s racial tensions (we are still among the country’s most segregated cities) by ignoring them.

And that should have been made very obvious last year. In the early morning hours of February 23, 2004, two men vandalized the fist. They poured gallons of white paint on the statue in reaction to the murder of two white Detroit police officers by a black man. The vandals claimed there was no racial motivation to their act, but rather they were attempting to draw attention to the increasing violence in Detroit. Of course, the fact that they left pictures of the slain officers with "Courtesy of the Fighting Whiteys" written on the back certainly makes that explanation seem suspect.

But whatever the motivation of the vandals, their act re-ignited a decades-old debate about the fist, and its message. In 1987, when Pope John Paul II toured Detroit and Hamtramck, a platform was erected to cover the fist, so that it would not be visible to the Pontiff while he was speaking. Ignoring Detroit's violent past didn't change anything then, and as the crime rate in the city continues to rise, perhaps now is the time to really evaluate our past in order to finally lay it to rest.


annamaria at 11:15 AM

1 spoke


at Monday, April 11, 2005 2:38:00 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found out recently that Joe Louis was actually born in Lafayette, Alabama. Who knew! (Well, not me, obviously.)

I guess that's one more thing we can add to our very-short-list-of-good-things ever to have come from Alabama! :)


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