He grew up in a society that deliberately separated blacks and whites while claiming they were equal. In reality, he and other African-Americans had few rights and even fewer opportunities. Despite this, our hero reached for the stars and achieved them… four times in a row! In so doing, he found acceptance -- albeit briefly -- in an unlikely place, offering hope that racial equality might one day become reality, even in the United States.
The grandson of slaves, Jesse Owens and his parents joined the "Great Migration," when 1.5 million Southern blacks fled north, in search of better economic opportunities and to avoid the increasing threat of lynching by Southern whites. They landed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1922. Jesse was not quite 10 years old.
In secondary school, Jesse’s passion for running and jumping earned him a place at Ohio State University. As a teen, he was already breaking world records and, indeed, he went on to win award after award for the Buckeyes, earning him the nickname: "Buckeye Bullet." Yet because of the color of his skin, when he traveled with the team, he could not enter restaurants or stay in the same hotel as his white mates. He could not live or shower with the team. It didn't matter that he was their star performer. In Jim Crow America, “separate but equal" held sway, even in the North.
On May 25, 1935, Jesse set three world records for running and the long jump in a single day. This made him a shoe-in to represent the US at the 1936 Olympic Games. But there was a catch: the Games were being hosted in Berlin that year, no the capital of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany.
The Nazis under Hitler had endorsed the theory of "Aryan supremacy," which stated that non-Jewish white people were biologically superior to all other people in every way. Many athletes of color from around the world, including Jesse and his fellow African-American teammate, Louise Stokes, questioned whether they should compete. They considered boycotting the games to protest Hitler's regime. But this was their chance, and they didn't have many. So, they decided to stand up to Hitler instead.
Hitler expected the Olympics to showcase the purified Aryan Nazi race. But when Jesse Owens stepped onto the racetrack, the German crowds went crazy. Their ecstatic cheers embarrassed the dictator greatly. And then, Jesse won four gold medals in a row and broke several world records -- a world record that would stand for fifty years. His success shattered the Furher’s myth of Aryan racial supremacy for all the world to see.
One of the points of Olympic competition is that athletes from all over the world make contact with each other, form bonds, and become friends, consequently breaking barriers that traditionally divide nations. Some athletes even grow close, which is exactly what happened with Jesse and German long jumper Luz Long.
Luz gave Jesse some technical advice, so the story goes, which aided him in winning the gold in the long jump. Luz took silver. After the event, the two men locked arms as they walked to the dressing room. They would remain friends until Luz’s death on the World War II battlefield a few years later. In his final letter to Jesse, Luz asked his African-American friend to "Someday find my son... tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth." Jesse would fulfill his friend’s death wish in 1964, meeting Luz's son Kai and sharing with him all about his friendship with his father.
There is a popular myth that Adolf Hitler refused to shake Jesse Owens's hand at the Berlin Games. In reality, Hitler had previously decided only to shake hands with German medalists and was not actually present when Jesse won his first Gold. The truth is that the person who snubbed Jesse was his own president. Owens received no telegram of congratulations for his record-breaking haul of medals. There was no invitation to the White House to shake hands with President Roosevelt. That honor was reserved for white Olympians.
Sadly, the US President was not the only one to snub Jesse Owens after his stunning Olympic victory.
The American Athletic Union and US Olympic Committee had arranged a post-Olympic tour across Europe. It's purpose was to make money for the organizations, not for the athletes, who were exhausted. Owens decided to head home before the tour was through. He wanted to exploit the potentially lucrative endorsement offers he’d received in Berlin before it was too late.
The officials punished him for his audacity to act on his own behalf. They had Jesse's amateur athlete status revoked, making it impossible for the world-record-breaker to ever compete again. His career as a runner was over. The endorsements fizzled along with his career.
The only job Owens could secure once home were as a gas station attendant. He eventually opened a laundry business, but it didn't do so well. In time, he would race horses for extra cash. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored Owens by naming him an “Ambassador of Sports.”
Jesse's fortunes rose and fell in the next decade, until the four-time Olympic US Gold Medalist was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion in 1966. Jesse recovered by becoming a motivational speaker, publishing two books on his personal history any ideas about race in America.
In his second autobiography in 1972, Owens endorsed the Black Power movement as a necessary antidote to the continued stranglehold of white racism on US culture. In 1976, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for President Gerald Ford, finally gaining the recognition he deserved. Jesse passed away in 1980 from lung cancer at the untimely age of 66.
Although robbed him of his true calling by racism, Jesse Owens believed in himself as strongly as he believed in good. He clung to the friendships and acceptance he found briefly in Berlin, certain that if fairness could be found in Hitler's Germany, it could one day be achieved in the US as well. He generously offered his best self to the world and to his country and goes down in history, alongside Muhammad Ali, as one of the most iconic and inspirational sportsmen of the 20th Century. For all these reasons, we are honored to highlight Jesse Owens as a Time Traveler Tours #History Hero during Black History Month 2018.
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