Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin
|Full name||James Cleveland Owens|
|Born||September 12, 1913
Oakville, Alabama, U.S.
|Died||March 31, 1980
Tucson, Arizona, U.S.
|Alma mater||Ohio State University|
|Height||5 ft 10 3⁄4 in (180 cm)|
|Weight||165 lb (75 kg)|
|Sport||Track and field|
|Event(s)||Sprint, Long jump|
Owens specialized in the sprints and the long jump and was recognized in his lifetime as "perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history". His achievement of setting three world records and tying another in less than an hour at the 1935 Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been called "the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport" and has never been equalled. At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, Owens won international fame with four gold medals: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 × 100 meter relay. He was the most successful athlete at the games and, as a Black man, was credited with "single-handedly crush[ing] Hitler's myth of Aryan supremacy", although he "wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either."
The Jesse Owens Award is USA Track and Field's highest accolade for the year's best track and field athlete. Owens was ranked by ESPN as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the twentieth century and the highest-ranked in his sport.
Early life and education
Owens was the youngest of ten children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens (a sharecropper) and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama, on September 12, 1913. J.C., as he was called, was nine years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for better opportunities, as part of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When his new teacher asked his name (to enter in her roll book), he said "J.C.", but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said "Jesse". The name stuck, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.
As a boy, Owens took different jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realized that he had a passion for running. Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior high track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, Riley allowed him to practice before school instead.
Owens and Minnie Ruth Solomon (1915–2001) met at Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland when he was 15 and she was 13. They dated steadily through high school. Ruth gave birth to their first daughter, Gloria, in 1932. They married on July 5, 1935 and had two more daughters together: Marlene, born in 1939, and Beverly, born in 1940. They remained married until his death in 1980.
Owens first came to national attention when he was a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland; he equalled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard (91 m) dash and long-jumped 24 feet 9 1⁄2 inches (7.56 metres) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago.
Ohio State University
Owens attended The Ohio State University after employment was found for his father, ensuring the family could be supported. Affectionately known as the "Buckeye Bullet," and under the coaching of Larry Snyder, Owens won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936. (The record of four gold medals at the NCAA was equaled only by Xavier Carter in 2006, although his many titles also included relay medals.) Though Owens enjoyed athletic success, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at "blacks-only" restaurants. Similarly, he had to stay at "blacks-only" hotels. Owens did not receive a scholarship for his efforts, so he continued to work part-time jobs to pay for school.
Owens's greatest achievement came in a span of 45 minutes on May 25, 1935, during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100 yard dash (9.4 seconds); and set world records in the long jump (26 ft 8 1⁄4 in or 8.13 m, a world record that would last 25 years); 220-yard (201.2 m) sprint (20.3 seconds); and 220-yard (201.2m) low hurdles (22.6 seconds, becoming the first to break 23 seconds). In 2005, University of Central Florida professor of sports history Richard C. Crepeau chose these wins on one day as the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.
1936 Berlin Summer Olympics
In 1936, Owens arrived in Berlin to compete for the United States at the Summer Olympics. According to fellow American athlete James LuValle, who won bronze in the 400 meters, Owens arrived in Berlin to a throng of fans, many of them young girls, yelling "Wo ist Jesse? Wo ist Jesse?" Many of them had come with scissors and had begun snipping at Owens' clothing, forcing him to retreat back onto the train. After that, when Owens left the athletes' village, he usually had to go with some soldiers to protect him. Owens's success at the games represented a counter to Adolf Hitler, who was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories. Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of "Aryan racial superiority" and depicted others, including those of African descent, as inferior. Owens countered this by winning four gold medals.
On August 3, he won the 100 m sprint with a time of 10.3 s, defeating teammate college friend Ralph Metcalfe by a tenth of a second and defeating Tinus Osendarp of the Netherlands by two tenths of a second. On August 4, he won the long jump with a leap of 8.06 m (26 ft 5 in), later crediting his achievement to the technical advice he received from Lutz Long, the German competitor whom he defeated. On August 5, he won the 200 m sprint with a time of 20.7 s, defeating Mack Robinson (the older brother of Jackie Robinson). On August 9, Owens won his fourth gold medal in the 4 × 100 m sprint relay when coach Dean Cromwell replaced Jewish-American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, who teamed up with Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper to set a world record of 39.8 s in the event. This performance was not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the Soviet-boycotted 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1935 (the year before the Berlin Olympics), Owens set the world record in the long jump with a leap of 8.13 m (26 ft 8 in), and this record would stand for 25 years (a very rare length of time for a track and field record), until it was finally broken by countryman Ralph Boston in 1960. Coincidentally, Owens was a spectator at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome when Boston took the gold medal in the long jump.
Just before the competitions, Owens was visited in the Olympic village by Adi Dassler, the founder of the Adidas athletic shoe company. He persuaded Owens to wear Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes, the first sponsorship for a male African American athlete.
On the first day of competition, Hitler shook hands with only the German victors and then left the stadium. Olympic committee officials insisted Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. Historians have noted that Hitler may have left the games at this time due to looming rain clouds that might have postponed the games. This happened well before Owens was to compete, but has largely come to be believed to be the "snub". On reports that Hitler had deliberately avoided acknowledging his victories, and had refused to shake his hand, Owens said at the time:
Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. 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.
Albert Speer 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."
In a 2009 interview, Siegfried Mischner, a German journalist, claimed that Owens carried around a photograph in his wallet of the Führer shaking his hand before the latter left the stadium. Owens, who felt the newspapers of the day reported 'unfairly' on Hitler's attitude towards him, tried to get Mischner and his journalist colleagues to change the accepted version of history in the 1960s. Mischner claimed Owens showed him the photograph and told him: "That was one of my most beautiful moments." Mischner added "(the picture) was taken behind the honour stand and so not captured by the world's press. But I saw it, I saw him shaking Hitler's hand!" According to Mischner, "the predominating opinion in post-war Germany was that Hitler had ignored Owens, so we therefore decided not to report on the photo. The consensus was that Hitler had to continue to be painted in a bad light in relation to Owens."  For some time, Mischner's assertion was not confirmed independently of his own account, and Mischner himself admitted in Mail Online that "All my colleagues are dead, Owens is dead. I thought this was the last chance to set the record straight. I have no idea where the photo is or even if it exists still."
However, in 2014, Eric Brown, British fighter pilot and test pilot, the Fleet Air Arm's most decorated living pilot, independently stated in a BBC documentary "I actually witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved." Additionally, an article in The Baltimore Sun in August 1936 reported that Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself.
In Germany, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, at a time when African Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels. During a Manhattan ticker-tape parade along Broadway's Canyon of Heroes in his honor, someone handed Owens a paper bag. Owens paid it little mind until the parade concluded. When he opened it up, he found the bag contained $10,000 in cash. Owens's wife Ruth later said, "And he [Owens] didn't know who was good enough to do a thing like that. And with all the excitement around, he didn't pick it up right away. He didn't pick it up until he got ready to get out of the car." After the parade, Owens was not permitted to enter through the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria New York and instead forced to travel up to the event in a freight elevator to reach the reception honoring him. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) never invited Jesse Owens to the White House following his triumphs at the Olympics games. While the Democrats had bid for the support of Owens, Owens rejected those overtures: as a staunch Republican, he endorsed Roosevelt's Republican opponent, Alf Landon, in the 1936 presidential race.
Owens, who joined the Republican Party after returning from Europe, was paid to campaign for African American votes for the Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election. Speaking at a Republican rally held in Baltimore on October 9, 1936, Owens said "Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy." Later, on October 15, 1936 Owens repeated this allegation when he addressed an audience of African Americans at a Republican rally in Kansas City remarking that "Hitler didn't snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram."
After the games had finished, the Olympic team and Owens were all invited to compete in Sweden. He decided to capitalize on his success by returning to the United States to take up some of the more lucrative commercial offers. United States athletic officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, ending his career immediately. Owens was angry, saying, "A fellow desires something for himself." Owens argued that the racial discrimination he had faced throughout his athletic career, such as not being eligible for scholarships in college and therefore being unable to take classes between training and working to pay his way, meant he had to give up on amateur athletics in pursuit of financial gain elsewhere.
Prohibited from amateur sporting appearances to bolster his profile, Owens found out that the commercial offers had all but disappeared. In 1937, he briefly toured with a twelve-piece jazz band under contract with Consolidated Artists, but found it unfulfilling. He also made appearances at baseball games and other events. Finally, friend and former competitor from the University of Michigan, Willis Ward, brought Owens to Detroit to work at Ford Motor Company in 1942 as Assistant Personnel Director, later becoming Director, where he worked until 1946.
In 1946, Owens joined Abe Saperstein in the formation of the West Coast Baseball Association (WCBA), a new Negro baseball league; Owens was Vice-President and the owner of the Portland (Oregon) Rosebuds franchise. He toured with the Rosebuds, sometimes entertaining the audience in between doubleheader games by competing in races against horses. The WCBA disbanded after only two months.
Owens helped promote the exploitation film Mom and Dad in African American neighborhoods. He tried to make a living as a sports promoter, essentially an entertainer. He would give local sprinters a ten- or twenty-yard start and beat them in the 100-yd (91-m) dash. He also challenged and defeated racehorses; as he revealed later, the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred that would be frightened by the starter's shotgun and give him a bad jump. Owens said, "People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals." On the lack of opportunities, Owens added, "There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway."
Owens ran a dry cleaning business and worked as a gas station attendant to earn a living; he eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966, he was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion. At rock bottom, he was aided in beginning his rehabilitation. The government appointed him as a US goodwill ambassador. Owens traveled the world and spoke to companies such as the Ford Motor Company and stakeholders such as the United States Olympic Committee. After he retired, he owned racehorses.
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.
Four years later in his 1972 book I Have Changed, he moderated his opinion:
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.
A few months before his death, Owens had tried unsuccessfully to convince President Jimmy Carter to withdraw his demand that the United States boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He argued that the Olympic ideal was supposed to be observed as a time-out from war and that it was above politics.
Owens, a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for 35 years, had been hospitalized with an extremely aggressive and drug-resistant type of lung cancer on and off beginning in December 1979. He died of the disease at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980, with his wife and other family members at his bedside. He is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.
The dormitory used by Owens during the Olympics has been fully restored into a living museum, with pictures of his accomplishments at the Games, and a letter (intercepted by the Gestapo) from a fan urging him not to shake hands with Hitler.
Awards and honors
- In 1936, four English Oak saplings, one for each Olympic gold medal, from the German Olympic Committee, were planted. One of the trees was planted at the University of Southern California, one at Rhodes High School in Cleveland, where he trained, and one is rumored to be located on the Ohio State University campus, but has yet to be identified. The fourth tree was located at the home of Jesse Owens' mother, but was removed when the house was demolished.
- In 1970, Owens was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
- In 1976 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford.
- In 1976, he was made part of the Olympic Order for his fight against racism in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
- In 1980, a new asteroid was discovered by Antonín Mrkos at Kleť Observatory which was named as 6758 Jesseowens in honor of Jesse Owens.
- USA Track and Field created the Jesse Owens Award in 1981, which is given annually to the country's top track and field athlete.
- In 1983, Owens was part of the inaugural class into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.
- In 1984, an Emmy Award-winning biographical television film of his life, The Jesse Owens Story, was released, with Dorian Harewood portraying Owens.
- In 1984 a street near the Olympic Stadium in Berlin was renamed Jesse-Owens-Allee, and the Jesse Owens Realschule/Oberschule (a secondary school) in Berlin-Lichtenberg, was named for him.
- On March 28, 1990, Owens was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George H. W. Bush.
- Two U.S. postage stamps have been issued to honor Owens, one in 1990 and another in 1998.
- In 1996, Owens's hometown of Oakville, Alabama, dedicated Jesse Owens Memorial Park and Museum in his honor, at the same time that the Olympic Torch came through the community, 60 years after his Olympic triumph. An article in the Wall Street Journal of June 7, 1996, covered the event and included this inscription written by poet Charles Ghigna that appears on a bronze plaque at the Park:
- May this light shine forever
- as a symbol to all who run
- for the freedom of sport,
- for the spirit of humanity,
- for the memory of Jesse Owens.
- In 2001, The Ohio State University dedicated Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium for track and field events. The campus also houses three recreational centers for students and staff named in his honor.
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Jesse Owens on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
- In Cleveland, Ohio, a statue of Owens in his Ohio State track suit was installed at Fort Huntington Park, west of the old Courthouse.
- Phoenix, Arizona named the Jesse Owens Medical Plaza in his honor, as well as Jesse Owens Parkway.
- In Markus Zusak's 2006 bestselling novel, The Book Thief, a character named Rudy Steiner idolizes Owens.
- Jesse Owens Park, located in Tucson, Arizona, is a staple of local youth athletics there.
- At the 2009 World Athletic Championships in Berlin, all members of the United States Track & Field team wore badges with "JO" to commemorate Owens's victories in the same stadium 73 years before.
- In early 2010, the Ohio Historical Society proposed Jesse Owens as a finalist from a statewide vote for inclusion in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol.
- On November 15, 2010, the city of Cleveland renamed East Roadway, between Rockwell and Superior avenues in Public Square, Jesse Owens Way.
- A novel in French written by Lebanese novelist Alexandre Najjar, Berlin 36, Plon (publisher), Paris, 2009, tells the story of Owens, particularly during the Berlin Olympic games. Najjar visited Chicago, Ohio and Alabama to achieve this distinguished tribute to Owens.
- For his contribution to sports in Los Angeles, he was honored with a Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum "Court of Honor" plaque by the Coliseum commissioners.
- In the London 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, just after the Olympic cauldron had been lit, the 80,000 individual pixels in the audience seating area were used as a giant video screen to show footage of Owens running around the stadium.
- A feature film titled Race about Owens with Stephan James portraying Owens was released February 19, 2016. Shooting began in Montreal on July 24, 2014.
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- Official website
- Jesse Owens Museum
- Jesse Owens Information
- Footage of Jesse Owens winning 100m Olympic gold in 1936
- Jesse Owens – An American Experience Documentary
- Obituary, New York Times, April 1, 1980
- Jesse Owens at Find a Grave
- Jesse Owens at the Internet Movie Database
- Jesse and Me (2019) at the Internet Movie Database
- Official "Jesse Owens Movie" Website
- Owens's accomplishments and encounter with Adolf Hitler (ESPN)
- Jesse Owens video newsreel
- Jesse Owens video in Riefenstahl's Olympia (1936)
- Jesse Owens's U.S. Olympic Team bio
- Path of the Olympic Torch to Owens's birthplace in North Alabama
- Jesse Owens article, Encyclopedia of Alabama