Children are naturally curious and look for examples to make sense of their world. And right now our world is rife with the endless fight for equality. Conversations about racism, unjust laws, and discrimination may be messy, full of missteps, and hard honesty, but they are essential. To borrow a smart assertion about talking to your kids about race, we (especially non-black parents) need to “make sure all children see black people as heroes in a wide range of their own stories, and not just as victims of oppression.”
With this is mind and as we uphold the spirit of our mission (“history contains answers and also sparks new questions”) may we introduce Jesse Owens. In short, he was the African-American son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, who won a staggering four gold medals in the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. But Owens’ story is so much more complex than just his athletic accomplishments—his grit and courage transcends the track. While many were protesting the Games because of the Nazi regime, Owens chose instead to use his position in the spotlight to display greatness and compassion.
“I always loved running,” Owens said about his youth. “I wasn’t very good at it, but I loved it because it was something you could do all by yourself, all under your own power. You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.”
It was that very strength and courage that propelled him into greatness with the world watching. The racist ideology of the Nazi regime was building during the Games, with the track and field arena adored with Nazi flags and Adolf Hitler himself was a prominent fixture in the stands. Undeterred, the 22-year-old Owens won gold in his first event, the 100-meter dash, and followed with a highly publicized victory over German champion Luz Long in the long jump. Owens then set an Olympic record in another gold medal win in the 200-meter dash, and ran the opening leg of the US 4×100 gold medal relay, becoming the first American of any race to win four gold medals in track and field in any single Olympics (an achievement that stood until Carl Lewis matched him in 1984).
Though Owens could be remembered and revered for his athleticism alone, it was his enduring friendship with rival Long that history books highlight, as well as his bravery in facing oppression on hometown soil. Pre-Olympics, when Owens entered Ohio State in the fall of 1933, he was barred from living on campus because of his race. He stayed in a boarding house with other African-American students about a quarter-mile from the campus. Post-Olympics, after deciding to return to the US instead of competing in Sweden, US athletic officials withdrew his amateur status to show their disappointment in his decision. This all but eliminated the lucrative commercial offers that were waiting for Owens back in the States. He was asked to take the freight elevator to his Olympic reception at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t invite him to the White House, or even send him a letter of congratulations on his athletic achievements.
The pastor of Roosevelt’s valet, Ernest Hall, even wrote to ask for support of Owens: “I am writing today to ask that you make provision for the successful contestants of the Olympic games in Germany to be officially received by yourself upon their return home without regard to race or color. I am certain that you are not aware of the electric effect such an action on your part will have upon the twelve million Negroes in America.” The reply from the White House was evasive and noncommittal. Still, Owens endured, and 40 years later in 1976, he received the highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given at the White House by President Gerald Ford. Owens braved it all with grace and dignity.
As for his friendship with German athlete Luz Long, both men lived up to what Owens has been quoted: “The only bond worth anything between human beings is their humanness.” Long was the first to embrace Owens in a congratulatory handshake after his Olympic long-jump win under the watchful eyes of Hitler, and Owens later wrote of this moment, “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have. And they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.” The two men continued their friendship even as Long was commissioned to fight for Germany in WWII. “We corresponded regularly until Hitler invaded Poland,” wrote Owens, “and then the letters stopped. I learnt later that Luz was killed in the war, but afterwards I started corresponding with his son and in this way our friendship was preserved.”
Upon Owens’ death from lung cancer in 1980, President Carter wrote, “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.” And since 1981, the International Amateur Athletic Association has annually presented the Jesse Owens International Trophy to the top amateur athlete in the world.
To further explore Owens’s story, may we suggest:
Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics
Jesse Owens is a hero in his own story, and in ours. There are plenty of resources to continue the conversation with your children about racism, which we encourage you to seek out. (Book lists we suggest here and here.) And we always encourage teaching kindness and compassion. But ultimately, seek opportunities to engage in and start conversations. Acknowledge racial indifferences. Share your experiences with your children and your feelings about racial injustice.