August 9, 2016
James stared down the track as his mind raced. He only had one chance left to qualify for the long jump and he could not figure out why he fouled his first two jumps. What was going wrong?
As he felt time slipping away, a tall blond-haired, blue-eyed challenger walked over and introduced himself. "Hello, I'm Luz Long," said the stranger in a thick accent. Of course James knew who he was. Long was his toughest competitor.
"You're jumping too late," the new friend continued. "Set your jump line back a bit and you'll be fine." As Long walked away, James smiled at the camaraderie he so treasured in amateur sports. James took his advice, remarking his jump line and set himself to try again.
Success! James easily qualified. In the competition later that day, James ended up beating his friend to win the gold medal in the long jump. The first person to run to James' side and congratulate him with a big hug was Long himself, who took the silver. They left the competition field arm in arm.
While it was not uncommon for amateur athletes to assist each other, this was Berlin in 1936. Hitler had been in power three years and was determined to show the world the superiority of the Aryan race. (see ) James' win completely debunked that progressive ideology as James was black. What's even more remarkable was Luz Long was German. Defying everything Hitler stood for, Long’s actions promoted the spirit of the Olympic Games, not the current political propaganda.
James Cleveland “J.C.” Owens was born September 12, 1913, in Alabama. At age nine, his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the Great Migration. During the 1920’s, 1.5 million blacks moved north to escape the segregated South entrenched in Jim Crow laws. (see , , , and ) When his new teacher asked him his name, James responded with his given nickname, “J.C.,” in his thick, southern accent. The teacher heard “Jesse”. The name stuck.
Owens was always a hardworking man, never looking for a handout. He took jobs even as a boy to earn money to help the family. He had a gift for running that he hoped would help him get to college. As a black man, scholarships were forbidden to him. Life became even harder when his high school sweetheart and future wife gave birth to their first child while they were still in high school. Regardless, he continued to stack up achievements and awards.
Owens was accepted to Ohio State University and continued to work part-time to pay his tuition. Even though his athletic career was receiving national attention, he had to live off campus with other blacks as well as patron “black only” hotels and restaurants when on the road with the track team.
On May 25, 1935, he had the most fascinating 45 minutes any track athlete could have dreamed of. During a Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Owens set three world records and tied a fourth. It was a feat never before seen.
A year later, Owens was headed to Berlin, Germany to participate in the 1936 Summer Olympics. He arrived to already adoring fans. Being swarmed whenever he left the Olympic Village, he was forced to have a soldiers’ escort to help restrain his admirers. In the states, people hated him because of his skin color. In Berlin, people praised him because of his success.
Before the events started, Adidas founder Adi Dassler approached him. After some discussion, Dassler convinced Owens to wear Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes, becoming the first sponsor of a male black athlete.
On August 9, 1936, Owens made history by winning his 4th Gold Olympic Medal. Stories began circulating throughout America that Hitler snubbed Owens and his other black teammates by leaving the stadium before the awards ceremony. Hitler had been personally congratulating the winners but was quickly rebuked by Olympic officials for not receiving all winners.
When asked about it later, Owens admitted he did not agree with the general assessment. "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".
Owens also commented, ”When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. (see ) I couldn't live where I wanted. 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."
Upon his return home, Owens was given a parade in New York followed by a reception in the Waldorf Astoria. Even after the grand parade, Owens had to enter the hotel through the back door and ride the freight elevator up to the reception in his honor.
Owens, a staunch Republican, showed his displeasure of Progressive Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt by endorsing his Republican opponent in 1936. Owens traveled the country to campaign for Republican nominee Alf Landon. During one of his speeches at a rally in Baltimore on October 9, Owens stated, "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."
While addressing his fellow black Americans at a Republican rally in Kansas City, Owens furthered his statement against Roosevelt by adding, "Hitler didn't snub me – it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram.”
Owens was eventually honored by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, who appointed him “Ambassador of Sports.”
To capitalize on his fame, Owens began accepting commercial offers shortly after his historical four Olympic gold medals in one year. This offended the Olympic committee who then revoked his amateur status, thus ending his track career. He held several jobs, even personally racing against racehorses, just to put food on his family’s table. He continued to work hard and respectably until the day he died. He spent much of his time traveling, giving speeches, and promoting good will through athletics.
Owens never forgot the kind and honorable act of Luz Long. The two remained pen pals until Long was deployed to Italy in 1943. Long wrote Owens, “My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life. If that is so, I beg one thing from you. When the war is over, please go to Germany, find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him about the times when war did not separate us and tell him that things can be different between men in this world. Your brother, Luz.”
Owens considered Long’s friendship more valuable than all his trophies. “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.”
In 1951, Owens fulfilled his friend’s last request by finding Kai Long. The two met several times before Owens’ death in 1980. The Owens and Long families remain friends to this day.
Owens and Long lived Martin Luther King's Dream before King even had it. (see ) Owens proved to Hitler and the world that a man should be judged by his character and accomplishments, not the color of his skin. Together, the men showed that King’s dream that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” is not just a dream, but to those who really want it, it can be a reality no matter what the political propaganda machines churn out.
Liberty, I have told you many times that our actions speak so much louder than our words. Our actions are our witness to the world. Eighty years later, the world still marvels at the sportsmanship of Luz Long and the friendship he had with Jesse Owens during such a contentious time. Long did not have to help or befriend Owens. With all the prejudice Owens experienced, he could have rejected Long with the argument that all white men are racist. Both men did what was right and honorable, not what was socially expected. This, Liberty, is the spirit of the Olympics.
That’s my 2 cents.
SPIRIT OF THE