In July 1955, inside a small dressing room in the New Orleans Coliseum, Joe Dorsey was sitting by himself, waiting to punch somebody.
New Orleans was a fanatical boxing town. The champions were local stars with style and verve. Heavy-fisted Joe Brown used his winnings to buy himself expensive suits and rounds of drinks for packed jazz clubs on Saturday nights. Ralph Dupas, known as “Native Dancer” for his frantic footwork, was a swarthy 20-year-old who looked like a cross between Elvis Presley and James Brown, topped with a pompadour. Dorsey was routinely described in local papers as “rugged,” and the Louisiana Weekly said he had “fists clenched with TNT.” “He was a hell of a puncher,” Alcee P. Honoré, who attended Dorsey’s fights back then, tells me. “He hit you; that could be it for you.”
For a long time, Dorsey, who was good with numbers, couldn’t discern what was going wrong. “Maybe because I ain’t got much education, maybe that’s what’s holding me back,” speculated Dorsey, who lived with his family in a five-room frame house, using a stove for heat, on St. Anthony Street in the Seventh Ward. “When you got education you ain’t afraid to talk to people. You feel like you feel secure. I sure wish I had more education.”
Maybe part of his problem was that he wasn’t flashy, like the great Joe Brown, lightweight champion of the world numerous times in the ’50s and ’60s. “He was not a very flamboyant type of guy,” Elmo Adolph, the New Orleans-born boxing expert who refereed tens of thousands of worldwide fights, from Larry Holmes to Reggie Johnson, told me before his death in 2012. “He was somebody that you would enjoy seeing, but unfortunately, a lot of his fights you didn’t see, because of the fact that he wasn’t one of those main main attractions.”
Or maybe his problem was something bigger, something beyond his control: Boxing in New Orleans had been segregated since 1892, when a black boxer named George Dixon beat his Irish challenger Jack Skelly before a massive crowd. Within four days, New Orleans’ Olympic Athletic Club banned interracial boxing for good. By 1950, Louisiana’s State Athletic Commission had followed suit. Throughout his career, Dorsey had been confined to fighting exclusively black opponents, which was not only unjust, but uneconomical. Dorsey was entering his boxing prime at a particularly divisive moment: As the civil rights movement was gaining traction, some Southern politicians were determined to hold onto — and even build upon — racist laws.
In his dressing room that night, on July 22, 1955, waiting to fight Andy Mayfield, Dorsey was nervous. He dealt with the butterflies in his stomach the usual way: He fell asleep. When he woke up, according to the black newspaper Louisiana Weekly, he strode into the ring and knocked out Mayfield with a left to the midsection in the sixth round.
Then he prepared for his next fight: Six days after beating Mayfield, Joe Dorsey filed suit. He initially intended merely to provide more money for his family. But not only would he wind up avenging more than six decades of wronged African-American athletes, he would also lay the groundwork to integrate musicians and performers in one of the most culturally vibrant — but racially divided — places in America.
Like every Southern politician, Earl K. Long considered himself a man of the people, and proved it with his eccentric, down-home behavior. On the campaign trail to be reelected governor, “Uncle Earl” walked Louisiana’s dirt roads, shaking hands, asking people what they thought about things.
Earl Long was the younger brother of the Kingfish, Gov. Huey P. Long, who had infamously ruled over the state as a benevolent dictator until a crazed assassin shot and killed him in 1935. Whereas the Kingfish formed his policy decrees from his governor’s mansion bunker in Baton Rouge, Earl was a populist who mocked the entire idea of being a politician. During election season, according to Michael Kurtz and Morgan Peoples’ Earl K. Long: The Saga of Uncle Earl, he frequently arrived at campaign events an hour late, passing the time during other candidates’ speeches by picking his nose, scratching his crotch, catching gnats in the air, and crossing and uncrossing his legs. And this was during speeches by members of his own party.
Long had to support segregation in order to win elections in the South. But he undercut these views by standing up for black people as human beings — a radical position at that time. In the late 1940s, he pushed for an equal pay structure for black and white schoolteachers. He made sure black people remained on the state’s voter rolls and campaigned at black churches.
Earl’s opposite number in Louisiana was Willie Rainach, a slick-haired, thin-lipped segregationist in his forties who had run the White Citizens’ Council in rural Claiborne Parish and proudly displayed a Confederate flag on his tie. Earl once was giving an impromptu political speech when he spotted Sen. Rainach in the audience and, in his impenetrable drawl, said, “He’ll probably go up there to Summerfield, get up on his front porch, take off his shoes, wash his feet, look at the moon, and get close to God.” Turning to face Rainach directly, Long added, as A.J. Liebling would recall in his fantastic 1970 new-journalism biography The Earl of Louisiana: “And when you do, you got to recognize that niggers is human beings!” (This prediction never came true: Rainach, a staunch segregationist to the end, committed suicide with a .38-caliber pistol in 1978.)
Yet in the summer of 1956, months into his second term, Uncle Earl signed several segregation bills that Rainach and Louisiana’s Joint Legislative Committee on Segregation pushed across his desk. The governor had no choice. He planned to run, again, down the road, and Earl Long always thought in political terms. “The trend is toward more segregation,” Rainach told reporters, and briefly he was right. Rainach’s dozen segregationist bills were part of the South’s massive resistance to civil rights.
So in late June, Gov. Long picked up his pen. Separate black and white waiting rooms at bus stations and airports? Signed! Give state police the power to enforce segregation in parks? Yes! Undercut the national court order integrating schools for white and black students? That too! Long may have been conflicted, but he handled these signings with typical folksy humor. Referring to Rep. John Garrett, vice chairman of Rainach’s committee, the governor breezily told reporters, “I don’t know how much good these bills will do, but I don’t want Garrett to think I’m courting the colored people.”
Eventually there was one segregation bill left for Long to sign. And this time, he paused. It had passed the Louisiana Senate by a margin of 33-0, and the House followed within a week. The law was to take effect in October, banning “dancing, social functions, entertainments, athletic training, games, sports or contests and other such activities involving personal and social contacts in which the participants or contestants are members of the white and Negro races.”
On July 16, 1956, Earl Long, man of the people, friend to the black voter, sworn enemy of Willie Rainach, signed the law. It would probably wind up in court, he admitted, but what could he do? He was merely bowing to the will of his constituents, who, the governor reported, favored the bill 4 to 1.
Joseph Dorsey Jr. was born on July 16, 1935, son of a carpenter, Joseph Sr., and a homemaker, Virgin. He grew up in a shotgun house in the Seventh Ward, northeast of the French Quarter, a Creole “city within a city” for working families, as Beverly Jacques Anderson put it in her book Cherished Memories. Dorsey attended the Seventh Ward’s two public elementary schools. He dropped out after his sixth year. “My mother used to say it was ‘cause he was bad,” his daughter, Dorinda Dorsey, 51, recalls.
Thicker and more muscular than other kids, Dorsey realized his talents were more suited for the gym than the classroom. “I never thought I’d be a fighter,” he would tell Jet, the only publication, nationally or locally, to interview Dorsey at length. “I was always the scary type.” By the time he was 11, he was hanging around boxing gyms near the French Quarter, where the assembled fight men noticed he had some talent. They started giving him real fights, which he won. In his wedding photo, Joe Dorsey stands a foot taller than his new wife, Evelyn Dorsey, née Watson. He’s wearing a light sport coat, wide tie, and slacks sagging an inch too long over his dress shoes. Evelyn is smiling radiantly, in an immaculately white blouse-and-skirt combo, with a dainty purse, gloves, hat, and carnation, clutching her husband’s arm. At 16, they look like they’re playing dress-up. Everything in the photo seems a few sizes too big, with one exception — Joe Dorsey’s hands are fully grown.
Dorsey racked up 12 victories in a row from 1953 to 1955, spending his spare time training at Curly’s Gym. This fixture, on Poydras and St. Charles, just outside the French Quarter, drew important boxing figures from all over the city, from cigar-smoking promoters and managers to Willie Pastrano, the future light heavyweight champion.
Although he was light-skinned and lived in the Seventh Ward, where some Creoles “passed” as whites, Dorsey was not a Creole. Once the law was passed, which happened to follow his bout against Andy Mayfield in 1955, he was more inclined to fight than hide.
The law that Gov. Earl Long signed was on the books for about three years. Its immediate impact was on sports.
The long-awaited 1958 prizefight between New Orleans’ hometown light heavyweights, Joe Brown (black) and Ralph Dupas (white), had to be moved to Houston. (Dorsey, who fought in a lower weight class that didn’t attract the huge publicity and the big-time boxing promoters, couldn’t afford to take all his bouts out of state.) That year was the second year LSU’s football team was scheduled to play the University of Wisconsin during the regular season in Louisiana. They were two of the top college teams in the country, and the game might have determined who played in the national championship. However, Earl Hill and Sidney Williams, the Badgers’ star wide receiver and quarterback, were black. Due to the law, LSU officials had to contact Wisconsin and tell its coaches to leave Hill and Williams at home.
“Of course, we wanted to beat them — to show the people that set the policy up that we could play football as well as they could,” Williams tells me by phone from Kalamazoo, Mich., where he is a retired patent lawyer. “We wanted to kick their ass.” The Badgers never got the chance. Wisconsin officials courageously refused LSU’s request, as they had the year before, so the scheduled game never took place. “Canceled due to racism,” read the headline of the Wisconsin Magazine of History five decades later.
The law’s repercussions would stretch far beyond New Orleans, affecting even the great Louis Armstrong, the hometown hero who had long since graduated to international stardom. “I just wonder what them politicians got on their mind,” responded Satchmo, who was barnstorming the world with a band of white and black jazz musicians in the ’50s. “They got the nerve to have my picture hanging on the wall of some of the finest clubs in New Orleans, but still I can’t play there. I recorded with the Dukes of Dixieland in Chicago the same record they’re playing on New Orleans jukeboxes, but we couldn’t play there in person. Don’t forget to quote me as saying, ‘I don’t care if I never go to New Orleans again.’”
Some of the great musicians from that time barely remember any kind of segregation law, since the indignities of Jim Crow were merely part of their routines back then. “When you live with segregation 24/7, there are things that occur consistently that you don’t like. You’d be in a state of outrage all the time,” veteran New Orleans jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, father of Wynton and Branford, says. “A lot of what happens is, kind of, you anticipate, and you become numb to some of it.”
Dorsey had become close with Ernest “Butch” Curry, a sports editor for the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper that distributed its Louisiana edition through an underground network of churches in New Orleans. Curry’s office was on Dryades, not far from the Quarter, and a civil rights lawyer named Louis Berry worked in an office building down the street. Curry and Berry brought Dorsey into a group of anti-segregation activists who had been meeting secretly at restaurants in black neighborhoods.
In the sparse second-floor office above the dining room at Dooky Chase’s, some of the most renowned civil rights lawyers in New Orleans history shuffled in and out while chef Leah Chase, the owner’s wife, kept the red beans and rice flowing. In this small but important group of men were Dorsey’s Seventh Ward neighbor, A.P. Tureaud, who would fight just about every civil rights case in the 1950s and 1960s, integrating schools and buses throughout Louisiana, and Berry, a Howard University-trained lawyer. They took on integration fights as if divvying up territory — you take the schools, you take the buses, you take sports. “I’m a good fighter, but I can’t make any money,” Dorsey told the men. “But I could make money if I could fight these white boys.”
Berry and Israel M. Augustine, who would later become the first black district judge in Louisiana, agreed to take his case, with Berry as the lead attorney. The first hurdle was the $350 fee for filing suit in New Orleans federal court. With help from Curry and his sportswriting colleagues, Dorsey and Berry solicited donations by installing cigar boxes in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in black neighborhoods. One uptown barber, Joe Daly, gave $300, as Evelyn L. Wilson reported in her comprehensive 1993 profile of Berry in the Southern University Law Review.
So on July 28, 1955, Dorsey, with the help of Berry and Augustine, sued the Louisiana State Athletic Commission. White newspapers such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune initially buried the news on Page 3, but black newspapers ran glowing photos of handsome Joe Dorsey, his pretty wife, and their four beaming children. The Louisiana Weekly regularly published a photo of Dorsey with his dukes up, staring straight into the camera, his brow intensely wrinkled, as if he were on the brink of punching out racism in all of Louisiana.
But the formidable Gremillion ran into a wall of a judge. John Minor Wisdom, who’d graduated first in his Tulane University class, a World War II lieutenant colonel who received the Legion of Merit, had been a liberal Republican who helped Dwight Eisenhower win the presidential nomination. Ike paid Wisdom back for his loyalty in 1957 by appointing him to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans. The timing was important: three years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, which desegregated American schools everywhere. Following Brown’s lead, Wisdom and his fellow judges spent the next decade dismantling segregation throughout the South, in voting, schools, jails, playgrounds, restaurants, and bars. In November 1958, the three-judge U.S. District Court, on which Wisdom served, sided with Dorsey. The court called the law “unconstitutional on its face” and chastised Louisiana for attempting to declare itself a sovereign state, independent of federal civil rights protections. “Even if riotous conditions did result from mixed boxing exhibitions,” the court wrote, “we doubt if this statute would be sustained by the Federal Supreme Court.” Less than six months later, the Supreme Court affirmed.
Dorsey, the quiet boxer who could barely scrape together enough money to raise his children, was a hero. “Joe Dorsey as a name is just ordinary, only a step removed from the tens of thousands of John Joneses and Bill Browns and Tom Smiths on the American scene,” the Washington Afro-American opined, in 1959, under the headline “Because of Dorsey.” “Yet this obscure light heavyweight from New Orleans, Louisiana, has earned the gratitude of athletes everywhere through his fighting heart.”
Joe Dorsey’s victory immediately gave white and black people in Louisiana the legal right to play sports and music together. And then he faded away. That may have been because the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t comment in its decision, which meant Dorsey’s case didn’t get as much national media hype as other desegregation verdicts of the time. It may have been because Dorsey resolutely refused to promote himself, and he was rarely quoted in news articles about the case. And Jim Crow did not go away.
It took a lot of civil rights victories, big and small, over a long period of time, for that to happen. Louisiana State University’s football team didn’t sign or put black players on the field — running back Lora Hinton and cornerback Mike Williams, respectively — until 1971 and 1972. In 1961, at the new Playboy Club in the Quarter, Al Belletto, the veteran jazz bandleader, replaced his white bass player with hotshot Richard Payne, a black man he considered the best in the city. To cover his ass, Belletto called his Playboy superiors and explained his decision, as he recalls by phone. There was a pause. His boss asked, “You want the guy?” Belletto responded, “He’s the guy.” The boss said, “You get him.” The boss told him not to worry, because at Playboy, they had far better lawyers than the state of Louisiana could ever possibly have.
For years, Belletto’s mixed-race big band played in the third-floor penthouse at the Playboy Club. The musicians ignored the bunnies as best they could.
Desegregation came too late for Joe Dorsey. Six months after he won his civil rights case in the Supreme Court, his boxing career abruptly stopped. The next six years of his life, as far as sports are concerned, are a blank. “[Louisiana boxing officials] killed him by not giving him any creditable bouts. They passed the word. If he couldn’t get no fights, he couldn’t train — he would just die out,” remembers the Rev. Samson “Skip” Alexander, a veteran New Orleans civil rights activist, historian, and photographer who knew Dorsey and his family. “That was a different time. You had to watch what you said, and you couldn’t speak out and have an attitude of wanting things to change. If you had that kind of attitude, they passed the word on you.”
In the ’60s, Dorsey supported Evelyn, four young boys, and a baby daughter, Dorinda, as he found work as riverboat banana handler, a liquor-store porter, and, finally, on the docks. During his six years away from boxing, other fighters grew stronger, including Herschel Jacobs of White Plains, N.Y., who had a personal philosophy of never letting anybody hit him with the same blow twice.
On March 21, 1966, when he was 30, Dorsey began his comeback. A decade earlier, white and black musicians had been arrested and hauled into court merely for playing jazz with each other on the same stage during an informal jam session at what would become Preservation Hall; now Lou Messina, the boxing promoter, lived with his white family in an all-black neighborhood across the street from Municipal Auditorium, outside the French Quarter, and nobody had any trouble.
“I don’t remember New Orleans having the [same] racial tensions as the rest of the South,” recalls the late Messina’s son, Louis, who is now a veteran concert promoter for AEG Live. By this time, attitudes were beginning to change — black fighters could fight black or white fighters. Dorsey laid out free-swinging Bobby Simmons of Philadelphia in four rounds at the Municipal. Later, Dorsey gave the same treatment in five rounds to Texas’ Benny Bowser. Both were black. Then Lou Messina gave Joe Dorsey a night of his own, telling reporters it was “long overdue appreciation.” Messina set Dorsey up with hulking white Arizonian Johnny Featherman. Dorsey crushed him, although the fight hit a curious snag in the third round, according to the local papers, when Dorsey hit Featherman so hard he fell to one knee, but Dorsey slipped in an extra punch, prompting the ref to stop the fight rather than pronouncing a knockout. The crowd of mostly black Dorsey fans booed lustily, and Dorsey eventually won on a TKO.
On Oct. 17, 1966, however, Dorsey was struggling to stay on his feet. An hour and 10 minutes into his prizefight against young Herschel Jacobs, 26, even the crowd of 1,900 at the Municipal Auditorium could see Dorsey’s rugged fists of TNT were not as effective as usual. It wasn’t as if Dorsey wasn’t in shape. He prided himself on his workouts, jumping rope and pounding bags endlessly at Whitey’s Gym, spending hours beating on the best young boxers he and his manager could find. And Jacobs didn’t have a physical edge. Dorsey came in on the scales at 175 and a quarter pounds. Jacobs hit 176. Both were light heavyweights, built like upside-down triangles, wide and thick in the chest and skinny and muscular everywhere else. (Evelyn Dorsey, who always sat in the front row of Joe Dorsey’s fights, in a pretty dress, next to his sister, had the responsibility of altering the fighter’s shirts so they could properly accommodate his chest.) Dorsey had the better record, 22-4-1, and his manager insisted he had never been knocked down. Jacobs was 20-12-2, his manager attributing the losses and ties to being “jobbed” at opponents’ rings with rinky-dink hometown refs. Both were working men: By this point Dorsey was a longshoreman, while Jacobs worked construction, “exercising all day long, but you’re getting paid for it.”
For their fight in October, Jacobs had been favored slightly. He had the better moves, but in the early rounds, according to Louisiana Weekly, Dorsey landed the best punches. He came out flailing in the fourth, pushing Jacobs into a corner, and kept up the momentum in the fifth with strong combinations. Jacobs wasn’t fazed. His manager, Kid Sharkey, had been pushing him absurdly hard, and the fighter had a regimen of getting up every morning at 5 a.m. to run 5 miles, taking a bus to his construction job, working all day, taking another bus to the gym, and training against top fighters, including light heavyweight champion Jose Torres, all evening.
At the end of the ninth round, Herschel Jacobs’ right fist came out of nowhere as the bell rang, connecting with Dorsey’s jaw and knocking “The Fighting Longshoreman” on his butt. Dorsey tried to recover in the 10th, but Jacobs had broken him. Jacobs’ final blow was a left hook, flying in from what seemed like half the ring, hitting Dorsey cleanly on his right jaw. Dorsey went limp, hit the rope, then hit the floor.
That leaves Dorinda, a systems analyst for the Department of Agriculture in New Orleans. She is quiet and stoic, the way most people who knew Joe describe him. But she can be coaxed into giggly remembrances of her parents. She talks in short sentences, and rarely says more than she has to. “Normally, he was training,” she says. “I remember him drinking a big cup of raw eggs. He’d train. He could jump rope — twist and turn the rope. He worked out — punching bags and all that.”
She has darker memories too. Dorsey may have been a civil rights hero, but he sometimes turned those big hands on his family. “I think he hit me once because of something I did,” Dorinda says, laughing nervously. “My mama used to whup me all the time.” During a tour of her family’s old Seventh Ward neighborhood in her Nissan Altima, Dorinda recalls Cyril Kelly, a Texas fighter her father beat in the ring at least twice, coming over in the ’70s to insist that he used to beat her dad in the ring. (Most of the official records are documented in the Times-Picayune archive and collected via BoxRec.) This turned out not to be true, but Dorsey, true to dignified character, didn’t bother to humiliate his old friend by correcting him in front of his daughter.
After losing to Herschel Jacobs, Joe Dorsey tried one more comeback fight in 1969, and lost. The boxing career he began at age 11 was, truly, over. As a longshoreman, he supervised a gang that would ride in trucks up and down the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to the Port of Baton Rouge. For a long time, black workers had to do the dirty work. White workers ran the lift machines, and worked on the decks of the ships. Black people worked “in the hole,” using their backs and arms and legs to hoist bags of cotton and other heavy cargo off the ships.
To make matters worse, Angola state prison inmates, after serving their sentences, gravitated to the gangs on the docks and had no problem beating up their co-workers and stealing their money on the job. Dorsey’s colleague on the docks, boxing fan Alcee P. Honoré, says Dorsey had to teach a lesson or two with his fists. That usually did it. “He wasn’t anybody you wanted to mess with,” Honoré tells me.
Joseph Dorsey’s legal battles integrated sports and music in New Orleans and Louisiana. Dorinda wasn’t alive when they happened, but she keeps a plastic container of yellowed articles in her home in New Orleans, pulling it out for any visitors expressing an interest. She’s thinking about donating them to the Amistad Research Center at the local Tulane University, but hasn’t yet brought herself to do so. Dorsey’s nieces and nephews brought the articles to their elementary school classes for years, boasting of the important man in their heritage.
“He didn’t talk about it,” Dorinda tells me. “A lot of people didn’t know about it. But his family does.”