A Knockout For Civil Rights

The Overlook

By Tom Clavin

“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it).  Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.And don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!

            I have a story to tell about a courageous man and I’m telling it this week not because of any anniversary but simply because I want to. Years ago, I did some research thinking this story might become a book. That did not work out, but the story is still worth passing on.

            Joseph Dorsey Jr. was 31 years old when he fought his final bout on May 18, 1966.  He was working full-time as a longshoreman in his native New Orleans and had agreed to this one fight only because it had special meaning, both to him and, in fact, the entire South.  By all standards, Dorsey had triumphed even before he stepped into the ring, but he badly wanted to win his match against Johnny Featherman, a veteran light-heavyweight from Tempe, Arizona.  That would put a gratifying exclamation point on all that he had achieved.  He had been waiting his entire career for this opportunity. 

 In truth, this 10-rounder between two unranked boxers would be written about only in the local papers, but Dorsey knew its significance, as did the hundreds of fans in New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium who shouted his name.  Dorsey, a black boxer, was finally, eight full years after the federal court ruled in his favor to allow mixed-matches in Louisiana, facing a white man.

            As the sixth round began, Dorsey nodded to his wife sitting at ringside.  Evelyn would divert her eyes once the action began.  She never used to come to his fights because it was too hard watching him take punishment, but tonight was an exception, and she had even brought their six children.  Dorsey and Featherman met in the center of the ring and fought furiously for three long minutes. When the bell rang to start the seventh round, one of the fighters didn’t get off his stool.  The bout was over and a hand was raised in victory

            The story of Joseph Dorsey has never been told before in a book or on screen, which is a travesty.  It certainly deserves telling because it is not only the personal story of an unlikely hero, but also the story of how this black man with only an eighth-grade education, the prominent black civil rights attorney Louis Berry, and the legendary Federal Court Judge John Minor Wisdom changed the course of American sports and social history. That boxing match 55 years ago came about because Dorsey decided to do battle with the Louisiana Athletic Commission, the Louisiana Legislature, and Louisiana Governor Earl Long, as well as what the state’s segregationists called “Southern custom.”  It is surely time to call attention to the fight he led and lived, and to the historic but mostly forgotten Federal Court ruling that was the athletic equivalent of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Brown v. Board of Education was the most significant civil rights court decision of the 20th century.  However, while it brought about immediate desegregation in schools, most change in the South was either gradual or didn’t happen at all.  The impact of the Brown ruling was further reduced when several Southern states passed new segregation laws. Louisiana was one of four states to enact legislation that banned mixed-race athletic competitions and other “entertainments.” Every sport was included in the ban.  In 1956, Earl Long even went so far as sign Act 579 to prevent a repeat of that year’s Sugar Bowl when one of the teams, the University of Pittsburgh, fielded a black player. Long, who would later govern the state from the confines of a mental institution (and be elected to Congress!), was determined to discriminate against black athletes.  Dorsey had other plans.

            Joseph Dorsey Jr. was born in 1935 and began boxing at an early age.  After earning his spurs as an amateur, he turned professional when he was just 16.  Also that year he married Evelyn Watson, who was his age. Their first child, Mervin, was born the following year.  With a family to feed, he took every bout he could get. 

            By the mid-1950s, Dorsey was viewed as an up-and-coming fighter with an impressive record of 20-3.  As a middleweight and then a light-heavyweight, he fought throughout the South, but most often in Louisiana and Texas.  The young Dorsey had visions of going for the world championship.  Unfortunately, his ambitions, like all other Southern black boxers who looked up to Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, were halted by the mixed-race ban. Without white fighters available to them, black boxers got fewer fights and none against top-ranked white contenders in “money” bouts.  Black fighters were not even allowed to appear on the same cards as white fighters, so most “fight nights” were essentially all-white and all-black affairs.  One light-skinned black boxer was so desperate to get matches that he tried to sue New Orleans authorities to amend his birth certificate to change his racial classification from black to white.

Though only 21 in 1956, Dorsey stepped up for himself and all black boxers. He and his attorney, Louis Berry, who worked with Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn the ban on mixed matches. In addition to citing the 14th Amendment, Dorsey pointed out that instead of an annual income of $10,000, he would barely eke out $600 if he were not allowed to participate in profitable mixed-race bouts.  Dorsey couldn’t afford the $350 filing fee, so he literally passed a hat among fellow black fighters, relatives, friends, and businesses in his neighborhood.

Dorsey had painted a bull’s-eye on his back by filing the lawsuit. “He was never afraid of no one or no thing,” Mrs. Dorsey told me. “He was a man of principle, and if no other black fighter was going to take a stand, then Joe decided it was up to him.”  His career was finished as far as promoters were concerned. “My father was blackballed,” stated Dwight, 52, the Dorseys’ second child.  His mother concurs: “That’s the way it was done in the South then. You challenge us, then you don’t work.”

Joseph Dorsey did work, but rarely as a fighter. He took whatever jobs he could get to put food on the table.  Eventually he found a steady job as a longshoreman on the New Orleans waterfront. Meanwhile, his lawsuit, pushed by Berry and with Marshall supervising, plodded through the court system. It was determined that a three-judge panel, culled from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and headed by John Minor Wisdom, would decide the case.

This did not bode well.  True, the Fifth Circuit had ruled favorably years before on Brown v. Board of Ed, kicking it up to the Supreme Court. But in the following few years, President Eisenhower had stockpiled the court with older, conservative Republicans who weren’t likely to further the cause of a black boxer who was challenging not only Louisiana law but the practices of the Deep South. In addition, Judge Wisdom had grown up in New Orleans, and, as he would later recall, had “a lot of old friends and business associates call me up while we were deliberating the Dorsey case, all assuming we could not rule in a black man’s favor.”

The decision was finalized before Thanksgiving 1958 and announced on November 28. Writing the opinion for the panel, Judge Wisdom -- who four years later would write the majority opinion that allowed James Meredith to enroll at the University of Mississippi -- stated, “In these circumstances, the court must hold with the plaintiff that as to athletic contests, Act 579 of 1956 is unconstitutional on its face in that separation of Negroes and whites based solely on their being Negroes and whites is a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment of the constitution of the United States.”

Louisiana officials were aghast. They immediately filed an appeal. It was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1959. It took a separate decision a few years later to end the ban on segregated seating and facilities at sporting and entertainment events, with the Dorsey decision being used as a precedent. As a result of overturning the Louisiana ban, laws barring mixed-race athletic competitions fell across the South, and were never reintroduced.

It is so unfortunate and surprising that this moment in history has been virtually forgotten. “Dorsey was a path-breaking decision,” wrote Leon Friedman, editor of Southern Justice and a professor at the Tulane Law School. “It was the first time any federal judge had construed the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown to mean that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause mandated total color-blindness – that any use of race as a factor of governmental decision making was per se unconstitutional. Wisdom’s ruling was the beginning of the end of state-sponsored segregation.”

            Still, Dorsey’s boxing career had ended. He was a longshoreman, and that is what he stuck to, while briefly training a few amateur fighters on the side. Then came the night in May 1966 in his hometown, when the white boxer Johnny Featherman, no tomato can, couldn’t answer the bell for the seventh round and lost to the superior fighter.  With his family by his side, Dorsey accepted the cheers and a few gifts and kudos from civics leaders, and retired for good.

            “He was kind of mad that night,” Mrs. Dorsey recalled. “Joe was expecting some cash. We needed that more than we needed a box of bath towels.”

            Over the next 38 years, Joseph and Evelyn Dorsey raised their six children (one son, Gregory, died in 1997) and felt blessed by their grandchildren. Dorsey retired as a longshoreman in 1997. He died from cancer in October 2004, surrounded by family and friends who would keep his legacy alive. Evelyn Dorsey did, until her death at age 80 in 2015. She had lived in an apartment outside New Orleans after the Dorsey home was  destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.