Jesse Owens , the runner who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and whose sterling performance was a slap in the face to Adolf Hitler and his racist eugenics philosophy, was the most popular an iconic figure in American track and field history. A decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color bar in professional baseball in the 20th Century, Jesse Owens was — along with his contemporary, boxer Joe Louis — one of the first African Americans to change white society’s perception of both black athletes and, more importantly, people of color.
The future Olympic champion was born James Cleveland Owens on September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama, the youngest of 10 children born to sharecropper Henry and Emma Owens. He was called “J.C.” until he was eight years old. At that time, his parents decided to move, abandoning their small hometown in order to flee a life of peonage (which was legal in the U.S. until a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court from 1938 to 1945.
The Owens family and hundreds of thousands of other black folk escaped legal peonage by moving north. The young J.C. and his family fond a better way of life in Cleveland, Ohio, far away from the segregated south that still denied blacks the right to vote under “Jim Crow” laws. J.C. was enrolled in a Cleveland public school, and on his first day, the teacher heard his name as “Jesse”, which was what he would be known as instead of J.C. for the rest of his life.
Prosperity did not come with the move to Cleveland, and young Jesse Owens had to work after school to help support his family. Because of his after-school toil, Jesse’s high school track coach would meet him in the mornings to train him, as his talent was so great, it could not be denied.
Jesse Owens was recruited by many colleges, and he decided to go to the University of Ohio. Owens did not receive a scholarship, so he had to again work his way through school. In addition to having to work his way through school, Owens had to contend with discrimination on a daily basis as a part of campus life. Racial discrimination also had to be dealt with when he traveled with his team to collegiate track meets, as America was still in the throes of legal segregation.
At the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, Jesse Owens set three world records and tied a fourth in a span of about 45 minutes. Owens tied the record in the 100-yard dash at 9.4 seconds, and set records in the broad jump (26 feet 8 1/4 inches), the 220-yard dash (20.3 seconds) and the 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds). The stage was set for Berlin.
The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were held in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and Hitler used the event as a soapbox to promulgate his theory of “Aryan” racial superiority. He was spectacularly shown up by the African American Owens, a member of a so-called “inferior” race that the Nazi propaganda satirized as being un-evolved and simian.
Despite the hostile atmosphere, which included the U.S Olympic team apparently giving into to anti-Semitism so as not to offend Hitler,Jesse Owens triumphed in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the broad jump. When the U.S. Olympic team apparently gave into pressure from the International Olympic Committee to remove a Jewish member of the 400-meter relay team, Owens was his replacement. The relay team went on to win the gold medal.
In three of his events, Jesse Owens established Olympic records, He became the first American in the history of track and field to win four gold medals in a single Olympics, a feat not duplicated until 1984, when Carl Lewis (a reputed abuser of performance-enhancing drugs) won gold medals in the same events at the Warsaw Pact-free 1984 Summer Olympics. Although Hitler refused to shake his hand, by the end of the games, the German fans cheered for him.
In his 1970 autobiography, The Jesse Owens Story, he claimed that the Fuhrer waved to him. “When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticizing the man of the hour in Germany.”
Life After Berlin
Jesse Owens’ life after the Olympics was marred by the lack of opportunities provided to African Americans. Although he came back to a ticker-tape parade held in his honor by New York City, Owens had to ride the freight elevator to attend a reception for him at the posh Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
In his biography, Owens remembered:
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”
Like a majority of African Americans before the 1960 Presidential contest (the first in which the Democratic candidate outpolled the Republican amongst black voters), Jesse Owens was a Republican. The Democratic Party counted on the votes of the “Solid South”, politicians who were anti-black, and pro-segregation, while the Party of Lincoln was the party of civil rights legislation, which more often than not died in committee under long-serving Southern Democratic salons in Congress. (It was Republican President Eisenhower who was behind the Civil Rights Acts of 1958 and 1960, with the idea of increasing black voter turnout in the South.)
The post-Olympics endorsement of Republican Presidential candidate Alf Landon over incumbent President Franklin D. Roosevelt by Jesse Owens in the 1936 Presidential contest has to be understood in the context of the times. With the Congressional Democratic Party leadership dominated by racist whites from the Deep South, it is not surprising that many prominent blacks would endorse the GOP candidate. (Jackie Robinson would remain a prominent Republican until his death in 1971.)
It did no good. Roosevelt racked up a massive, landslide victory, the greatest in history, over the hapless Alf Landon in 1936. FDR swept the “Solid South.”
Making a Living
After the Olympics, Jesse Owens had difficulty making a living. Baseball – America’s pastime — was segregated until 1947, and prominent black athletes like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays did not win promotional contracts until the 1970s, when football great O.J. Simpson became a media darling in a different racial climate. (Simpson’s precursor as an NFL great, the far more controversial and confrontational Jim Brown, did not win product promotions, but he had retired in 1966.)
Jesse Owensbecame a sports promoter, turning himself essentially into an entertainer. To make an income, Owens engaged in many exhibitions, such as running against race horses before Negro League professional baseball games.
Owens eventually moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he became a disc-jockey on a radio station serving an African American audience. He was extremely well-liked, and became an in-demand public speaker.
His popularity grew with time, as he was seen after the war as the man who showed up Hitler and his discredited Nazi policies of racial superiority. Jesse Owens became an important public figure in a society that, beginning with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decisions in the mid-1950s, was faced with the desegregation of not only public schools, but the public sector at large. America was forced into facing the painful process of overcoming its own racial hatreds and sordid past.
Jesse Owens started his own public relations firm, and traveled around the country speaking on behalf of corporations and for US Olympic Committee. His speeches told of the importance of religion, hard work and loyalty. He also sponsored and participated in youth sports programs in underprivileged neighborhoods.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford bestowed the Medal of Freedom on Jesse Owens , the highest civilian honor the United States government can award.
Owens, one of the more remarkable Americans to grace the world stage, died on March 31, 1980 in Phoenix, Arizona from complications of lung cancer, likely caused by his pack-a-day cigarette smoking habit. He was buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois. He was 66 years old.
Jesse Owens had married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Solomon, in 1935, and they had three daughters together. His memory is kept alive by his widow Ruth and his daughter Marlene, who operate the Jesse Owens Foundation, which provides financial assistance and support to deserving young people s from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Honors continued to come to Owens, even after death, testament to his greatness as a figure to overcoming horrible adversity. In 1984, a street in Berlin was named after him, and a school was renamed Jesse Owens Realschule/Oberschule (secondary school).
On March 28, 1990, Jesse Owens was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal, which was presented to his family by President George H. W. Bush.