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"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Monday, September 12, 2011

Jesse Owens

"Any black who strives to achieve in this country should think in terms of not only himself but also how he can reach down and grab another black child and pull him to the top of the mountain where he is. This is what a gold medal does to you."

James Cleveland (Jesse) Owens was born September 12, 1913 in Oakville, Alabama and moved to Cleveland at the age of 9. His talent came to the attention of a junior high track coach who allowed him to train for the team in the mornings because of his after-school job at a shoe-repair shop. At Cleveland East Technical High School he set records in the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds), 200-yard dash (20.7 seconds) and broad jump (24 feet, nine and five-eighths inches).

Although he wasn't given a scholarship, his coaches encouraged Owens to attend Ohio State University. They helped his father find a job, and Owens himself worked three part-time jobs to pay for school and support himself, his wife Minnie Ruth, whom he married in 1931, and their daughter. While at OSU he had eight NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936. At a Big Ten track meet in May 1935 he set three world records and tied a fourth. Despite this success, he was not allowed to live on campus, and when travelling with the team would be forced to stay in segregated hotels and eat on the team bus instead of in restaurants with the rest of the team.

Adolph Hitler intended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to be a showcase for the Nazi regime and Aryan superiority, but Owens' performance was a victory for America and for people of color around the world. He won four gold medals, including setting a record in the long jump of 26 feet, five and one-quarter inches. This record stood for 25 years, and the feat of four gold medals was unequaled until Carl Lewis did the same in 1984.

Writing in Ebony magazine, Lerone Bennett, Jr., said that the Berlin games
"...would become a legend and would be passed on from generation to generation, growing in the telling, the story of an incredible moment of truth when the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves temporarily derailed the Nazi juggernaut and gave the lie to Hitler's theories on Aryan (read White) supremacy.... [Owens's] story, which will be told as long as men and women celebrate grace and courage, was more than a sports story. It was politics, history even, played out on an international stage with big stakes riding on every contest."
Nevertheless, Owens returned to a segregated America. President Roosevelt ignored his triumph, and after a ticker-tape parade in New York City, he had to take the freight elevator to attend the reception in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria. While the rest of the Olympic track team went on to compete in Sweden, he followed up endorsement offers. These caused his amateur status to be revoked, and without the possibility of future competition the offers were withdrawn. To support his family and earn money to finish college, Owens ran exhibition races against horses, trucks, cars and motorcycles.
"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."
He invested in a dry-cleaning store and the West Coast (Negro) Baseball League but neither did well, and he filed for bankruptcy and was later prosecuted for back taxes. In 1942 he became the director of minority employment for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, and in 1950 moved to Chicago as a salesman for the Leo Rose Sporting Goods Co.

Owens became involved in youth activities in Chicago, joining the board of the South Side Boys Club and organizing the Junior Olympics, as well as serving on the Illinois Youth Commission. He started his own PR firm in 1955, and became a prominent speaker for businesses and youth organizations. In an obituary in the New York Times, William Oscar Johnson is quoted as calling him a "professional good example".

During the 1968 Olympics Owens drew criticism from African Americans for not supporting the black power salute of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. In his 1970 autobiography Blackthink he said, "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." Another, more militant, book was published in 1972 entitled I Have Changed My Mind.


Owens received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ford in 1976 and the Living Legend Award from President Carter in 1979, with Carter saying "Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry." He died March 31, 1980 in Tucson, Arizona. Due to the efforts of Rep. Louis Stokes of Cleveland the Congressional Gold Medal was presented to his widow in 1990. The track and field stadium at Ohio State was named in his honor, as was the annual award for the outstanding athlete of the USA Track and Field Association.

"I always loved running -- it was something you could do by yourself, and 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."

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