In 1936, Jesse Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the United States in the Summer Olympics.
It was an occasion where Adolf Hitler planned to show the world a renewed and vigorous Nazi Germany and the superiority of the Aryan race. Propaganda was sent out to promote those concepts and to depict other races as quite inferior and, particularly, the black race as almost less than human.
As it turns out, the Germans did pick up more medals than all other countries combined, but they were surprised by a reality check in regard to the black race.
- On August 3, 1936, it was Jesse Owens who won the 100m sprint. America’s Ralph Metcalfe came in second.
- August 4: Jesse Owens wins the long jump
- August 5: Jesse Owens wins the 200m sprint
- August 9: Jesse Owens wins in the 4 x 100 m relay team.
He won in all four of the Olympic competitions he entered and remarked afterwards, “I was looking only at the finish line. I thought of all the years of practice and competition, and of all who believed in me.” (Source)
He told reporters,
“I was treated marvelous by everyone. Anything any of the American athletes, including myself, wanted they got for us. My biggest thrill was when the American flag was raised after my victory in the 100 meters. My hardest event was the broad jump.”
Hitler shook hands only with the German victors; but when Olympic committee officials decreed that he should greet every medalist or none at all, Hitler skipped all further medal presentations.
When it was reported that Hitler had deliberately ignored the victories by Owens and had refused to shake his hand, Owens commented,
“Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was ‘bad taste’ to criticize the man of the hour in another country.” (Source)
Four gold medals is a performance not equaled until American-born Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events in 1984.
Jesse received confidence from a white teacher
As a youth, Jesse Owens was quite frail. Charles Riley, a teacher and coach at the school Jesse attended, was worried for how thin and sickly Jesse looked. In order to help Jesse’s strength, Riley brought him food in the morning and often invited him to eat dinner with his family in the evening. He also gave Jesse pointers on how to build up stamina like an athlete with exercise in running.
It didn’t take long before Riley saw Jesse’s incredible talent; and by the time Jesse had completed high school, his name and athletic prowess were well known. He attended Ohio State where he set new world records in track and field events preparing him for a place as a member of the United States Olympic team.
Owens never forgot the kindness and attention given to him from Riley and, through that experience, he saw first-hand that skin color did not determine whether a man was friend or foe.
When African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City proposed the black power salute, Owens refused to support it and stated,
“The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.”
Later in his life, around 1977, Jesse Owens wrote a book called “Blackthink” where he denounced that young blacks should blame society for their troubles. In that day and age, in America, he observed black people were given the same chances to succeed as white people.
When black activists got angry over what they perceived as the untruth of his statement, he revised his words, realizing that he had been luckier than most (black or white). He promoted that if you believe in yourself and believe you can succeed and really try, then you have a good chance. If you think you can only fail, then you will.
“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”
Early twentieth century America
In 1936 and in many parts of the U.S., Blacks were not given equal rights. After a NYC parade in his honor, Owens had to ride the freight elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria to attend the reception honoring him.
Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House under the presidency of FDR. Because of that political cowardice, Owens was hurt, claiming, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
Neither did FDR’s successor Harry S. Truman acknowledge Owens at the White House. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Owens an “Ambassador of Sports,” an award richly deserved as he viewed the Olympics to be above politics and a time for peaceful competition.
For that lofty premise, Owens had tried to talk President Jimmy Carter out of boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. However, Carter showed no empathy for the athletes who gave much of their lives to practice for the 1980 Olympics or, as Jesse Owens put it, “a lifetime of training for just ten seconds.”
A smoker, Jesse Owens died from lung disease in 1980.
Today, he is one of the most esteemed of athletes for all time, not only for his accomplishments but for his courage and character.
- May his light shine forever as a symbol
- for all who run for the freedom of sport
- for the spirit of humanity
- for the memory of Jesse Owens — Charles Ghigna
Black Americans honored with postage stamps
Jesse Owens Olympic Legend
Jesse Owens Foundation
Charles Riley, Jesse Owens’s mentor “The job paid so little that Riley had to work as a playground superintendent during the summer to support his family, including one son who was born crippled.”
This is Your Life – Jesse Owens