Jesse Owens: Marvelous Colored American
Black Excellence is everywhere around us folks. It exists today, and it has existed in the past. Far too often, we forget just how tough it was for our Excellence to shine through in days-gone-by. For every star athlete you see swagging today, in reality TV and on ESPN, there were so many more that went above and beyond in decades-past facing severe animosity.
My last post was about one of those men. Perry Wallace, who in the 60s integrated the SEC. Today’s post is about a man who you all know: Jesse Owens. Particularly, this post concerns his performance in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Let’s begin with some historical background to set the mood. Berlin. 1930s. Not the friendliest of places for the non-Aryan lot. The voting for the 1936 Summer games happened in 1931 actually before the rise of Hitler and his Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or Nazi as it is known today. So the IOC voted and Berlin got the games. Other prominent cities who bid for the Games didn’t get a single vote. Historians have found this quite curious. Either way, Berlin would be the stage.
Adolf Hitler wanted these Olympics to highlight the superiority of his “Aryan” people and German excellence. Streets were cleaned, and some of the restrictive measures that were already being put on Jews by 1932 were largely hidden from the outside world. Hitler wanted to win. But apparently not more than he hated Jews. Many Jews and Gypsies were banned from the games, even Jewish four-time world-record holder and ten-time German National Champion Lilli Henoch. You really gotta hate someone to have your best athlete banned from competing.
This hatred wasn’t only limited to Jews and Gypsies. The Nazi propaganda depicted ethnic Africans as inferior both intellectually and physically. Enter, Jesse Owens.
This man beasted during these Olympic games. He won the Gold Medal in the 100m, 200m, long jump, and 4x100m relay. This feat would not be accomplished again until Carl Lewis would Gold-medal in the same four events in 1984. At the beginning of the Games, Hitler only shook hands with German victors. The Olympic Committee insisted he congratulate all winners or none at all and thus the Führer stopped shaking hands with anyone. After hearing that Hitler refused to acknowledge his victories and shake his hand, Jesse stated:
“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.”
My mans Jesse got the proverbial “head nod” and not the formal “dap.” But even then, he was focused on his sport and not sending a political message. He thought it might be “bad taste” to criticize this white-supremacist, evil, motherfucker. I mean, that’s a certain amount of civility we just don’t see anymore. Hitler’s words about those of African descent, spoken in private to Albert Speer, his later armaments minister, show this respect was not reciprocated:
“Each of the German victories, and there were a surprising number of these, made him happy, but he was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.”
Let me know if you’re like me and are now thinking this is logically inconsistent. Hitler built his whole evil empire on the notion of Aryans being superior, then one Black man swaggs on his entire conception of things, and then ol’ Adolf admits that Blacks’ physiques are stronger and that because of this, Blacks should not be allowed to compete against Whites. Oh.
The most interesting thing in this is how Jesse felt about the thing. You’ve already read about his civility toward Hitler. The real story is about what happened when he returned victorious to America. In Berlin, he was allowed to share a hotel with all of the other athletes, but back in the U.S. it was a different story. After the ticker-tape parade on Fifth Avenue in New York, Owens had to ride the freight elevator in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to get to the reception honoring him. Add to this the fact that Hitler sent Owens an inscribed photograph of himself. Our own American President at the time, FDR, aint show Jesse no love. In Jesse’s words:
“Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
That’s right. Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t even acknowledge Owens’s victories. No telegram. Jesse was never invited to the White House. Truman, the next President, also showed Jesse no love.
Jesse finally got some recognition from a President . . . more than 20 years later, from President Eisenhower.
What have we learned from this little narrative? Let’s recap.
1. Jesse Owens, despite poor treatment, felt bad disrespecting Adolf Hitler.
2. Hitler felt Jesse and his kind were inferior, but acknowledged that Blacks are better physically, and makes nice by sending Jesse an inscribed photo.
3. TWO American Presidents showed less manners than the downtrodden Black Athlete facing racism at every turn and the guy who KILLED millions of Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and mentally challenged individuals in his bout for World Conquest.
There wasn’t always a time when Black Excellence was respected, revered, and acknowledged. Remember this.
Continue to Question the World Around You.