Jesse Owens: centenary of birth

Senator John P. Faulkner spoke in the Australian Senate on 4 Dec 13.

Tonight I rise to speak about James Cleveland Owens, better known as Jesse Owens, who was born a century ago on 13 September 1913 in Oakville, Alabama. He was the child of freed slaves and sharecroppers. His extraordinary athleticism demonstrated on the world stage made him an international symbol of racial equality.

Jesse Owens was the youngest of 10 children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald. Owens’s family began as sharecroppers in Oakvillete. Life was harsh; often there were not enough clothes for the children or food for the family. The family moved north across the Mason-Dixon line to Cleveland, Ohio, in search of a better life.

Under the capable tutelage of his high-school athletics coach, Charles Riley, Jesse found in running a ready escape from difficult circumstances. In his own words:

“Running meant physical freedom, individual expression, a sense of power … I loved it because it was something you could do all by yourself … 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.”

In 1933, at the national high-school championships, Owens equalled the world record in the 100-yard dash and long jump. His precocious talent led to a bidding war amongst the nation’s universities, keen to sign the most promising athlete in a generation. Encouraged by the promise of employment for his father, Owens chose Ohio State University.

At Ohio State, Owens became the first African American elected captain of the track team. And, on 25 May 1935 at a track meet in Michigan, he became a national figure when in the space of 45 minutes he equalled the world record in the 100-yard dash and set world records in the long jump, 220-yard sprint and 220-yard low hurdles—an effort still regarded by many as the single greatest feat in athletic history.

The 1936 Olympics beckoned for Jesse Owens. The Berlin games took place at a time of momentous change in Europe. Fascism was on the rise, organising itself for a menacing purpose. In 1935 Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and in September of that year Hitler introduced the Nuremberg laws. Churches, unions and civic groups called for a boycott of the so-called ‘Nazi Olympics’. The African American press foresaw how the oppression of German Jews could ferment ideas of racial superiority elsewhere.

In August 1935, Harlem’s Amsterdam News published an open letter calling on all would-be Olympians to boycott the games. Owens was not ignorant of the issues. He discussed his participation in the games with his coach. Ultimately he decided to attend. And so against this backdrop—this curious mixture of racial tension and national expectation—Owens boarded the SS Manhattan on 15 July 1936 bound for Europe. Reflecting on his journey, Owens would write:

“In the early 1830s my ancestors were brought on a boat across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to America as slaves for men who felt they had a right to own other men. I boarded a boat to go back across the Atlantic Ocean to do battle with Adolf Hitler.”

The 1936 Olympics were supposed to be a showcase of Hitler’s power and Aryan superiority, but instead a young African American dominated those Olympic Games. In the full view of the Nazi leadership—Hitler, Goebbels, Goring, Himmler—Owens won gold in the 100 and 200 metres, the long jump and the 4 x 100 metres relay. Owens equalled his own world record time in the 100 metres and broke world records in the others. Competing in a time before synthetic tracks and starting blocks, his records remained unbroken until the 1950s. The long jump mark lasted 24 years.

Jesse Owens returned to the United States a national hero keen to take up the commercial offers he had received whilst abroad. But with the glimmer of the games quickly dimming and banned from athletic meets by a malicious amateur athletics association, the commercial offers all but disappeared. The experience left him in his words ‘a sadder but wiser man’.

Later, Jesse Owens would find success as a corporate spokesman and motivational speaker. His personal circumstances and political views alienated him from the radical politics of the 1960s and seventies. In 1970 he published Blackthink, a reassuring view of the American Dream which emphasised individual endeavour over calls for a restructuring of institutional racism and poverty. He reacted angrily to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute at the 1968 Olympics arguing that:

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.

The irony was that Owens was the precursor to the black power movement and yet he opposed it. Owens moderated his views in a latter work, I Have Changed, but he would forever prefer gradualism and individualism to the brash, collective spirit of the civil rights movement.

A lifetime smoker, on 31 March 1980, Jesse Owens died of lung cancer. He was 67 years old. In 1936, moments before a world war and the final solution, I think we should reflect on the fact that Jesse Owens was asked to play the lead role in one of last century’s most extraordinary political dramas. We should celebrate his lead role, certainly his majestic athleticism and the very potent symbolism of his victories. We should remember what it teaches us about the futility of racial prejudice and the capacity of the human spirit to overcome.