Jesse Owens: An athlete’s struggle against poverty and racial bigotry despite fame

Facing both Jim Crow and Hitler in a sporting environment

by
Marijke Everts (Europeana Foundation)

Reaching international heights, track and field athlete Jesse Owens would set the world record for long jump that would stand for 25 years. His four gold medals win at the Olympic Games in Berlin, during the Nazi regime, would bring him many adoring German fans. His victory - along with those of other African American athletes - questioned the Nazi propaganda on Aryan superiority.

Born on September 12 1913 in Oakville, Alabama as James Cleveland Owens, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when he was nine, when more than a million African Americans left the segregated South for better opportunities as part of what is known as the Great Migration.

He had been known as J.C up until his teacher when asking him his name, thought he said Jesse instead of J.C due to his southern accent, which would stick with him for the rest of his life.

In 1931, the International Committee awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. By 1933, Hitler had come to power instituting anti-Semitic policies and remilitarising the government.

Sport was used by the Nazi government as part of the drive to strengthen the ‘Aryan race’.

Owens realised he had a passion for running. He first came to national attention while he was attending East Technical High School in Cleveland, taking part in the National High School Championship of 1933 in Chicago. He matched the world record of the 100 yard dash (91m) in 9.4 seconds and long-jumped 24 feet 9 ½ inches (7.56 meters).

While attending Ohio State University, under the coaching of Larry Snyder, he won eight National Collegiate Athletic Association championships.

Though successful, he had to live off campus, eat at Blacks-only restaurants and could only stay at Blacks-only hotels when travelling with his team. He continued to work part-time to pay for school, as he could not receive any scholarships for track and field because the sport was not well respected despite his achievements.

Owens set three world records in 1935: for the long jump, 220 yard (201.2m) sprint, and 220 yard low hurdles, and tied in the 100 yard dash.

That same year athletic groups in the USA pushed for a boycott of the Berlin games. Prominent Jewish-American athletes and Jewish athletes from other countries wanted to boycott the Olympics in protest at the Nazi’s oppression of Jews.

Owens was persuaded by the NAACP to vocalise that America should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics in Germany due to discrimination against minorities, but it is said that he and others eventually took part due to the president of the American Olympics committee branding those opposing ‘un-American agitators’. Some sources also claim that they wanted to prove that black athletes were not inferior and felt it hypocritical to boycott considering America's own discriminative policies.

Once in Germany, Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, persuaded Owens to wear his shoes making the first sponsorship deal for an African-American male athlete.

In Berlin, Germany had the largest national team and captured most of the medals. The Americans, however, were in command of the track and field events.

Along with Owens, 17 other African-Americans were part of the American team. Hitler had been congratulating winners on the first day of the Olympics, though left shortly after African-Americans David Albritton and Cornelius Johnson won the high-jump event. Due to this incident, the organisers asked Hilter to congratulate all winners or none at all, so he chose none, but secretly congratulated German winners in private.

Jesse Owens became the star of the Games with four gold medals. He matched the world record for the 100 meter race (10.3 seconds), and broke the world records for the 200 meter race at 20.7 seconds and broad jump (26 feet 5 3/8 inches). He was applauded by the mostly German crowd and developed a friendship with Luz Long, the German long jumper and silver medalist.

Luz Long walking arm in arm with Jesse Owens through the Berlin Olympic Stadium
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The African-American athletes in total won 14 medals: 8 gold, 4 silver and 2 bronze, but none received as much recognition as Owens did.

‘It was easier to tell the story of one African-American because that's an anomaly. But 18, that's a lot for Jim Crow newspapers to want to report on.’ Deborah Riley Draper

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Owens, along with the other African-American athletes, defied the propaganda the Nazi regime wanted to sell during the Olympics about Aryan superiority, and so were branded as primitives with stronger physique 'than those of civilised white and hence should be excluded from future games’, Nazi minister Albert Speer wrote on Hilter’s thoughts.

Ironically, Jesse Owens and his African-American teammates were allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotel as whites in Germany - back in the United States, they did not have such privileges.

After the games had ended, the Olympic team was invited to compete in Sweden, but Owens decided he wanted to pursue financial gain by returning to the US to take up endorsement offers. He had continued to face discrimination throughout his athletic career, having to work to pay his way with no access scholarships. So when faced with endorsement opportunities, naturally he took it. This angered the US athletic officials who withdrew his amateur status, ending his career instantly.

Owens had returned to the US an international star yet had difficulty in finding work. He was banned from appearing at amateur sporting events to uphold his image and commercial offers disappeared. A few of his African-American teammates entered academia or held elected office, but many struggled to secure stable careers upon returning. Mack Robinson the silver medalist once used his Olympic jacket while working as a street sweeper to keep warm.

By the 1950s, Owens started working in public relations and would travel the country and abroad making guest appearances at public events.

When he died in 1980 of lung cancer at the age of 66, the US president Jimmy Carter paid him tribute stating, ‘Perhaps no athlete better symbolised the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry’.

Jesse Owens, along with the 17 African-American athletes, two of which were women, had to face both Jim Crow and Hitler in a sporting environment. They defied stereotypes, inspiring future Black Olympians. Their victories - along with the boycott debate - called attention towards racial discrimination in sports.

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