The new biographical movie about Jesse Owens, Race, will be released in theaters this Friday, February 19th. The title has a double meaning – alluding to Owens’ historic record breaking feats he performed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as well as his identity as an African American, which presented hurdles as a citizen of the United States.
Jesse Owens was born in Oakville, Alabama in 1913. In the 1920s, his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio as part of the Great Migration. After a very successful track career in high school (where he helped his team win a national title and set world records), Owens was heavily recruited by many colleges due to his athletic prowess. Jesse Owens decided to run track at The Ohio State University, where, although he was the track star, campus segregation barred him and other African American athletes from living on campus and traveling on the same bus to track meets. In spite of these and other hardships, Jesse Owens earned the title of “fastest man on Earth” at a Big Ten meet in which he broke three world records (long jump, 220 yard sprint, and 220 hurdles) and tied the world record for the 100 yard dash.
Next came the 1936 Olympics, taking place in Berlin, Germany. These Olympic games were met with controversy in the United States. Many athletes and supporters were concerned that participation would send the message that the US supported Hitler’s regime; and on the other side, many wanted to go to prove the idea of Aryan supremacy wrong. With four gold medals won in the 100 meter, 200 meter, long jump, and the 4×100 relay – Jesse Owens overwhelmingly showed the world the error in the thought of Aryan superiority. Owens excellent showing and winning four gold medals was not matched until Carl Lewis won gold in the same events at the 1984 Olympics.
Jesse Owens Olympic glory was celebrated around the world, his dominance at the games making him arguably the most famous Olympian. When Owens returned home, he was met with the mixed bag of treatment and courtesy afforded to an African American living in the US. From the series Franklin D. Roosevelt President’s Official Files, 1933-1945 (NAID 567634) there are numerous letters and telegrams expressing enthusiasm and glee for how the “fastest human” will be welcomed and celebrated when he gets home. One telegram, from New York City, announces that “Jesse Owens has been officially selected to March at the head of the American Olympic in the welcome home parade up Broadway,” and the Good Neighbor League “would be honored to carry on by presenting your greetings to these great athletes.”
Jesse Owens nor any of the other persons of color that won medals for the United States during the 1936 Olympics were invited to the White House to be received by President Roosevelt. A myth grew out of the games stating that a humiliated Adolf Hitler refused to shake hands with Owens. Owens himself addressed the “snub” myth: “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.”
Owens remained a celebrated figure to the American public, however, and in 1976, he received the highest civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given at the White House by President Gerald Ford.
Have you been watching the Jackie Robinson documentary on @pbstv?
Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. This decision would not only integrate baseball, but would help the country work to achieve equal rights for all. Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., once commented to baseball pitcher Don Newcombe, “Don, you and Jackie will never know how easy you made my job, through what you went through on the baseball field.”
What’s Black Music Month without a nod to the
Queen of the Beyhive? Beyoncé Giselle Knowles’ career began with a talent
competition and led to the formation of R&B girl group Destiny’s Child. When the girls
broke up, Beyoncé ventured off as a solo artist. Today, Beyoncé’s name can be
found in fashion, a vegan meal delivery service, and the latest music
streaming service, Tidal, managed alongside her husband, rapper Jay-Z.