Jesse Owens: The Champion of the Champions
James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens was born, 105 years ago, September 12, 1913, in the little town of Oakville, Alabama, in the heart of the American South. His parents were typical representatives of the suppressed and forgotten African American community, living under the conditions of severe racial segregation and the atmosphere of hatred. The father of Jesse, Henry Cleveland Owens, was a sharecropper, and his mother, Mary Emma Fitzgerald, was just busy raising kids and spent most of her time home. That was, probably, even harder a job, than the one Jesse’s father had, since the family had ten children: seven boys and three girls. Jesse was the youngest of them.
When Jesse was a child, Alabama was one of the strongholds of white supremacists from the “Ku Klux Klan.” The Klan was revived in 1915 and by the beginning of the 1920’s had become the strongest political force in the state. The KKK basically controlled most spheres of life in Alabama at that time, starting from public schools all the way to road construction. Eventually, when Jesse Owens was a teenager, the Klan managed to appoint its representative, Democratic politician Bibb Graves, as the governor of Alabama. Owens’ family never experienced that, since they moved to Ohio and settled in Clevelend in 1924, when Jesse was 9 years old. They didn’t move alone, but were accompanied by more than 1.5 million African American from the South during “The Great Migration”.
Important to mention before the 1930’s (the reforms of Democratic President of the U.S. Franklin Delano Roosevelt) the Democrats were much more traditional and conservative than their Republican opponents, so such collision shouldn’t embarrass anybody, who is used to the liberal and progressive agenda of the Democrats nowadays. In fact, most of the “Klan” members were Democratic sympathizers.
In the roaring 20’s, the time Jesse Owens was growing up, the fact the Klan members became the governor of some Southern and Midwestern states, would only mean the African American community would face even worse times than before. Even living in Ohio, Jesse Owens had to struggle against racial prejudice since the first years of his conscious life, but the scale of it wasn’t as bad as in his home state, so the family decision of leaving Alabama for a better life was a truly Solomonic one.
There, in Ohio, he worked a number of low-paying jobs, such as delivering groceries, loading freight cars and working in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. Yet he always dreamed of becoming a professional athlete and expressed special interest in running, being a member of the track and field team at Fairmount Junior High School. Owens first came to national attention when he was a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland though, when he equaled the existing world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard (91 m) dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 1⁄2 inches (7.56 meters) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago. After that it became clear that he was capable of achieving something really great.
As a student at Ohio State University, Owens won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four times each — in 1935 and 1936, and there was no doubt such a talented athlete couldn’t miss the Summer Olympics of the same year. Yet, there were two problems about it in one bottle: first, Jesse was black, second — the Summer Olympics of 1936 were to be held in the heart of Nazi Germany. Berlin.
The mere idea of a Black athlete from the U.S. competing against the German athletes inspired by Triumph des Willens, Nazi propaganda and the atmosphere of racial prejudice was fantastic, but nonetheless Jesse went to Berlin to do his best. Owens was, actually, quite far from all political issues. He just did what he was best at. He ran.
“I wanted no part of politics,” Owens said. “And I wasn’t in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best”.
Despite this statement of Jesse Owens himself, that was plain and clear: the mere fact of a participation of an athlete of Black race in such conditions was a challenge to the Nazis. And the challenge they couldn’t cope with. Jesse Owens was a triumphant of the Berlin Olympics, winning four golden medals. He was the winner of 100 and 200 meters distance races, of the long jump contest and of 4x100 relay.
The Nazi propaganda was in panic. How come the representatives of “the master race” got beaten by some Black guy from Ohio behind the eyes of loyal audience, behind the eyes of the whole humanity? That was a true slap in Hitler’s face, who actually witnessed the records of Jesse Owens, despite the wide-spread myth he went off the Olympic stadium, when it became clear Jesse would win. The Olympics that were meant to become the testimony of Nazis supremacy went really wrong.
Albert Speer, “The Architect of the Reich” later wrote that Hitler "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…".
And that was all Hitler could say in the defense of his maniacal ideas.
Owens used to say the secret of his success was that he let his feet spend as little time on the ground as possible, from the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up. This probably is technically true, however we can be sure the true metaphysical secret of his success was the nature of the things he did. And he did the right and just things, showing the whole world how strong and willful the oppressed could be.
There certainly is no doubt about it.