Of course, Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, shattering Adolph Hitler’s theory of the Aryan race being superior to all others.
How much will it look at Owens’ life outside his brilliance as an athlete. Although he was known and admired the world over, in America, his homeland, he lived as a second class citizen in a segregated society.
Owens grew up in segregated Alabama, and his family was part of the ‘Northern’ migration of blacks. They ended up in Cleveland, where Owens worked jobs as a kid, and where he discovered his penchant for running, and running extremely fast, in between jobs.
He was actually born J.C. Owens, but when his first grade teacher heard him say, JC, she thought he meant ‘Jesse’, and the name stuck with him.
It was the beginning of a remarkable career. He set national records in high school, and later at Ohio State University, he set eight NCAA track and field records.
It is also where he got a taste of the discrimination policies of America. He was not allowed to live on campus at OSU, or travel with the team, or stay in the team hotels.
By the time the 1936 Olympic Games had come around, Owens was a track and field icon, despite his second class state as a black man.
Amazingly, when Owens traveled to Germany, he was treated better than he was in the United States. He was allowed to stay in hotels with whites, and eat in restaurants with whites.
It really says everything about the value black people had in America at that time when you consider Owens was treated better in Germany, than America.
At the Olympic games, he blew away the competition. He won gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and was a member of the 4X100 winning team. Owens’ performance was spectacular.
Hitler refused to shake his hand, which Owens found as no surprise. However, when he returned to America, it was no different. President Franklin Roosevelt ignored Owens’ incredible feat. “It was not Hitler who snubbed me, it was the president who snubbed me. He didn’t even send me a telegram.”
And, despite his superstar status around the world, Owens was just another black man in America. He was stripped of his amateur status, and had to work a litany of jobs to support his family, even racing against horses.
“People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?,” Owens said. “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”
Owens actually spoke out against Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they wielded their famous black glove salute at the 1968 Olympics. However, later in life he said he came to an understanding of why the two men felt the need to voice their feelings on human rights in America.
“I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned,” he wrote in his book, ‘I Have Change’ . That any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970, was either blind, or a coward.”
Jesse Owens, and a generation of blacks, ran the race, and ran it well during their lifetimes. However, America’s black community is far from the finish line.