In 1936 African American sprinter Jesse Owens amazed the world by breaking Olympic records and winning four gold medals in Berlin, the headquarters of Hitler’s Nazi regime. However, Owens became known not only for his athletic triumphs, but for his friendship with German competitor Luz Long and for the social barriers he broke down in the face of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
James Cleveland Owens was the youngest of ten children born to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama. J.C., as he was called, was nine years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio for better opportunities, as part of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When his new teacher asked his name, he said “J.C.”, but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said “Jesse”. The name took, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
As a boy and youth, Owens took different jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realized that he had a passion for running. Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his school track coach. Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, Riley allowed him to practice before school instead.
Owens first came to national attention when he was a student; he equalled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard (91 m) dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 1⁄2 inches (7.56 metres) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago.
Though Owens enjoyed athletic success while at Ohio State University, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens had to stay at “blacks-only” hotels.
Owens’s greatest achievement came in May 1935, during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100 yard dash and set world records in the long jump (26 ft 8 1⁄4 in/8.13 m, a world record that would last 25 years); 220-yard sprint; and 220-yard low hurdles.
In 1936, Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the United States in the Summer Olympics. Adolf Hitler was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games. Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of “Aryan racial superiority” and depicted ethnic Africans as inferior.
Owens surprised many by winning four gold medals: On August 3, 1936, he won the 100m sprint; on August 4, the long jump; on August 5, the 200m sprint; and, after he was added to the 4 x 100 m relay team, following a request by the Germans to replace a Jewish-American sprinter, he won his fourth on August 9.
The long-jump victory is documented, along with many other 1936 events, in the 1938 film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl.
Owens said, “Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” Jesse Owens was never invited to the White House, nor were honors bestowed upon him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt or his successor Harry S. Truman. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower honored Owens by naming him an “Ambassador of Sports”.
Owens was quoted saying the secret behind his success was “I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.”
Owens refused to support the black power salute by African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He told them: “The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers”. Four years later in his 1972 book I Have Changed, he moderated his opinion: “I realised now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.”