The lessons of history, as Marge Schott reminds us, are soon forgotten. It’s been 60 years since Jesse Owens’ performance at the Berlin Olympics, an event that now seems as much a part of our national lore as the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, and as distant.
It began as a Nazi pageant and turned into a drama that seemed to presage the American triumph in World War II: Owens winning the 100 meters . . . Adolf Hitler snubbing him . . . a German long jumper named Luz Long daring to openly befriend the black American . . . Owens amassing four gold medals in a powerful advertisement of the glory of a free society.
“He just had that kind of carriage,” says Owens’ widow, Ruth, wistfully. “Look how long he’s lasted. Jesse’s been dead for 16 years and he gets more publicity now than a lot of athletes who are participating this year.
“Sometimes I have to just sit and tears come to my eyes when I think about it. You say to yourself, ‘Well, gee, he had to be a heck of a fellow to last this long.’ ”
Owens was, indeed, special. He set an indoor sprint record that lasted 40 years. He set a long jump record that lasted longer than Bob Beamon’s. But he was more than an athlete. For a moment, Owens embodied the spirit of a rising young nation and the things he saw and did will never be forgotten.
Some of them even happened.
In the first place, the United States in 1936 was only “free” or “open” in a relative sense.
American society was still widely segregated. The armed services wouldn’t be integrated for 12 more years and until then there were quotas for black enlistees, who were often steered away from combat. In segments of the country, blacks went to “separate but equal” schools; the Supreme Court wouldn’t mandate integration for 18 more years.
Owens was the youngest of 10 children of an Alabama sharecropper who lived near the hamlet of Oakville in 1913. On the day Owens was born, his biographer, William Baker, notes the nearby Decatur Daily reported a black man had been arrested and fined $100 for having “offered an insult” to a white woman, by loitering too long near her home while delivering ice.
The Owens family moved to Cleveland in the early ‘20s. Ruth, who met Jesse in junior high when he was 15--he sent her a note--says their neighborhood was mixed, with little tension between the races. As a senior at East Tech High School, Owens was elected student council president.
However, Ohio State University in downstate Columbus was another matter.
Baker’s biography, “An American Life,” notes that just before Owens arrived in 1933, the NAACP had sued Ohio State, claiming that two black students had been denied campus housing.
“Knowing the feelings in Ohio,” school president George Rightmire asked, “can the administration take the burden of establishing this relationship--colored and white girls living in this more or less family way?”
The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the school. Owens never lived in campus housing, boarding with other black students and, after he and Ruth married, moving in with her cousin, Fannie.
Blacks could not eat in the restaurants along High Street, adjacent to the university, nor attend the movie theaters. Jesse, a determined optimist and a believer in the soft-spoken industry espoused by Booker T. Washington, never complained, but college teammates later told Baker that Columbus was “a cracker town . . . just like Jackson, Miss.”
Owens, a prodigy, made the Olympic team in his junior year. There was growing uneasiness among competing nations about the political overtones but if Jesse was worried about it, he gave no sign.
“I don’t think he was aware of the conditions that existed over there,” says Ruth, now living in a pleasant apartment in a high rise here on South Lake Shore Drive.
“He was very young and he had to work very hard to make the Olympic team. I don’t think Hitler or anything else could have kept him away. You know athletes, they don’t see color. And he had been an athlete all his life.”
For Germans, the games were to symbolize the rebirth since their World War I defeat. The 110,000-seat stadium was said to have been built “under the personal direction” of the new chancellor, Hitler.
These were no longer Hitler’s “early days,” recently romanticized by Schott, the Cincinnati Reds’ owner. Jailed for his part in a failed coup, Hitler had written “Mein Kampf” behind bars in 1925, asserting that Aryans were a “genius race,” Jews were “parasites” and Germany was entitled to “living space” to the east in lands occupied by “Slavs and Marxists.”
The games were also a symbol of his rise to chancellor. The Olympic torch was delivered to a rally of 30,000 uniformed Hitler Youth members, addressed by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and Hitler, himself.
The American novelist Thomas Wolfe described Hitler’s daily entrance to the stadium, standing in an open limousine, his right hand extended palm down in the Nazi salute, “walled in by the troops behind which patient, dense, incredible, the masses of the nation waited day by day.”
Nazi party newspapers predicted German Olympic victories that would confirm Hitler’s race theory. The blacks on the American team were called “black auxiliaries.”
Yet, on a personal level, the black Americans were welcomed.
“I was to find out later there was a vast difference in the attitude of the majority of German athletes and their Nazi leaders in relation to Negro athletes,” Owens said in his narration of Bud Greenspan’s 1966 film, “Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin.”
“Their newspapers and propaganda spoke of us as black auxiliaries or a black legion, but there is a bond among athletes of every race, religion and color that transcends all prejudices.”
Owens won the 100 meters. American newspapers reported that Hitler snubbed Owens, a claim now widely discounted. If any American black was snubbed, it was Cornelius Johnson, who won the high jump on the first day of competition. Hitler personally congratulated two Germans and a Finnish gold medalist in his box that day but left the stadium after Johnson’s victory.
The head of the International Olympic Committee, Henri de Baillet-Latour of Belgium, subsequently asked Hitler to greet all the winners or none. Hitler chose the latter.
Owens won his second gold in the long jump, with the aid of an Aryan, he fondly recalled later.
On his first qualifying jump, Owens ran through the landing pit, a warmup technique in the United States but a foul in the Olympics. On his second try, the judges again called a foul.
Needing a fair jump of 25 feet, Owens said he got a suggestion from the German favorite, Luz Long, to place a handkerchief six inches behind the board and jump from there. Jesse did and qualified. That afternoon, he won the gold medal and Long took the silver.
Baker, noting that such American sportswriters as Grantland Rice and Arthur Daley didn’t report any conversation between Owens and Long, and Jesse’s tendency to embellish stories, suggests this too is apocryphal. Greenspan, a friend of Owens, insists it happened.
What happened after that, however, was filmed. Owens, emerging from the pit after his record jump, was immediately embraced by Long, who ran excitedly alongside him--"directly in front of Chancellor Hitler’s box,” Owens recalled--smiling and shaking Jesse’s hand.
The blond, handsome “Aryan ideal” and the “black legionnaire” struck up a friendship. They were photographed together, lying on the stadium grass in their warmups, laughing and talking.
They never met again. Long was killed during World War II, while serving in the German military.
Owens won his third gold medal in the 200 meters, then ran the leadoff leg of the 400-meter relay for the fourth. The Southern-born Wolfe, watching the 200 in the box of the American ambassador, let out a loud whoop.
“Owens was black as tar,” Wolfe was later quoted by his biographer, Andrew Turnbull, “but what the hell, it was our team and I thought he was wonderful.”
Owens returned on the Queen Mary, a national hero. Ruth and his parents took a tugboat 12 miles out to greet him before he docked in New York, along with Jack Dempsey and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. There was a ticker-tape parade.
Had he won his gold medals later, Owens would have become wealthy and competed for years, as Carl Lewis has done. Owens’ Berlin marks nevertheless stood up, despite the conditions: a chewed-up cinder track, with no starting blocks, the runners digging little holes to put their feet in.
That was how it was in 1936.
“There was no work for him,” says Ruth. “He had loads of advertisements promised before he came back to the States, but none of them materialized because they couldn’t go through the South.”
Owens barnstormed with a basketball team, “raced” Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium, ran against some Cincinnati Reds--spotting them 10 yards--once even raced a horse.
He got $10,000 in ’36 to stump for the unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate, Alf Landon. Ruth says she never feared for him while he was in Germany but that fall as they campaigned in Mississippi--living and eating on a railroad car since there were no accommodations for blacks--she grew uneasy at one audience’s attitude and pulled on his coat tail, asking him not to get up and speak.
Buoyant and outgoing, Owens was a fine speaker and people liked hearing his story. He told it the way they liked it, complete with the snub by Hitler. If he was asked about it, he blithely admitted it was more dramatic that way.
An outspoken advocate of rugged individualism, Owens nevertheless scuffled in various enterprises and was embarrassed by a conviction for tax evasion. In later years, as the Olympic movement attracted corporate backing, he was hired as a spokesman by Atlantic Refining and several other companies.
There were other problems. When angry young black athletes protested in Mexico City in 1968 and Munich in 1972, Owens tried to talk them out of it. The young men complained that he had betrayed his own. Owens was from another place and time; he didn’t want to choose between two sides.
“To me,” Ruth says, “he was the type of man--I had always said if there was a dollar to be made, Jesse was going to make 50 cents of it.
“Jesse had the kind of personality, I don’t care who it was--he would have walked up to Hitler and said, ‘Hi, champ!’ ”
In 1951, Owens returned to West Berlin to take a lap around the stadium, cheered by 80,000 people in the stands. The mayor of West Berlin shook both of his hands, he said, to make up for the one Hitler didn’t shake in 1936.
Owens returned again in 1966 to shoot his film. He asked Greenspan to bring Luz Long’s son, Kai, with whom Jesse had corresponded for years, so they could at last meet.
In the film, Owens and Kai reenacted the pose in the photo of Jesse and Luz.
Said Owens in his narration, “Though it may seem a little childish, doing it brought back memories of a warm interlude in my life, when a fellow athlete showed a special grace and a special courtesy when I needed help.
“I’ve experienced many moments in the sun but perhaps the most rewarding was to have Luz Long beside me on the winner’s platform.”
Owens died in 1980 of lung cancer at 66. Three years later when Alabama Gov. George Wallace provided money for a statue on the Moulton courthouse lawn, seven miles from Owens’ birthplace, local citizens opposed it, claiming they already had too many statues. Baker notes the Moulton mayor, unbowed in the face of the publicity, asking, “If somebody way off in California or somewhere gives us a bad name, what difference is it going to make?”
After months of discussion, a four-foot statue was erected in nearby Oakville.
The Olympic torch is going through the area this summer, in memory of Owens, past a house similar to the one he was born in. That house will become a Jesse Owens Museum. This is how history moves, so slowly you almost can’t see it, except on rare moments like Owens’ at Berlin.