Sports and Social Justice: Jesse Owens

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The thirties were a tumultuous time for both the United States and Germany. Segregation and racial inequality plagued the United States while Nazism and the Holocaust were brewing in Germany. In 1936, Hitler and his Nazis spread propaganda promoting Aryan racial superiority while emphasizing how inferior Africans were. However, Hitler and his Nazis had never encountered Jesse Owens.

Owens’ attitude towards competing in the summer 1936 Olympics in Berlin was to kill Hitler with kindness.

On the first day of the Olympic games, Hitler only shook hands with the German victors. Afterwards, the Olympic committee told Hitler that he must greet all of the winners or none at all. He ultimately chose not to greet any of medal earners going forward.

“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.” – Jesse Owens

Owens already knew the kind of crowd he’d be facing. He knew that his victories would silence the proud Germans and quell the racist notion that Aryans are the superior race.

International Olympic Committee

Owens went on to break the Olympic record by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic games. The first medal was secured on August 3rd in the 100m sprint event, outrunning Ralph Metcalfe who is German. The next day, Owens claimed his second victory against Luz Long in the long jump event. On August 5th, Owens earned his third gold medal in the 200m sprint.

When Hitler found out that a Jewish-American athlete competing for the United States in the 4 x 100m sprint, he specifically requested that he’d be replaced. Owens was asked to compete in his place, and secured his fourth gold medal.

Later, Owens was asked to reveal the secret behind his success: “I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.”

After the completion of the games, the American team was invited to compete in Sweden. However, Owens decided to return to the States and bask in his towering victories. This infuriated the United States athletic officials who went on to revoke his amateur status, which ended his career.

The president at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, refused to honor Owens after his multiple victories in the Olympic games. Owens was not offered an invitation to the White House either. Roosevelt was not able to put his prejudices aside to honor Owens, a successful and accomplished athlete.

“Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” Jesse Owens

It deeply bothered Hitler how many victories Owens earned in the summer Olympic games in 1936. He was extremely confident that Germans would dominate the games.

“Their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.” – Adolf Hitler

Owens proved Hitler, his comrades, and supporters wrong by earning four gold medals and breaking records. His excellence was his protest. Owens erased the racist claims that the Aryan race was superior to his own. Years later, in 1968 when Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested by raising the black power fist during the awards ceremony, Owens did not support them – at first.

“The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.” – Jesse Owens

However, four years later Owens had a change of heart: “I realized 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.”

Owens’ words still ring true in today’s socio-political climate. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the inequities and oppression that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities face in our everyday lives. The United States has more prisons than the next seventeen countries combined, which is the result of the industry being privatized and for-profit. African Americans constitute thirty-four percent of the prison population, but only make up thirteen percent of the United States population. African Americans are also the primary targets of racial profiling and unjust sentencing.

It is important that we take a hard look at our nation’s institutions, including sports, and how they affect everyone in different ways.

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