We enjoy telling the story of Jesse Owens defeating Adolf Hitler. The tale brightens our American spirit, encourages our sense of greatness.
We ignore the story of Owens and his return to the United States. After winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Owens was snubbed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who declined to send a congratulatory telegram or invite the world’s greatest athlete to the White House.
In Germany, Owens sprinted his way to destruction of white superiority, but this sprint did nothing to alter the reality of America in 1936. The night he was honored at a dinner in New York’s glittering Waldorf-Astoria, he arrived via service elevator. African-Americans were prohibited from riding alongside whites on standard elevators.
Ryan Hagood, a civil rights lawyer, is a graduate of Denver Manual High School and Colorado College. He works as director and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Hagood says. “The service elevator?”
The saga of Owens and triumph in Berlin followed by humiliating return to the United States delivers the troubling truths of an Old Testament tale. Owens saw himself as far more than the world’s fastest human.
“I'd spent my whole life watching my father and mother and older brothers and sisters trying to escape their own kind of Hitler, first in Alabama and then in Cleveland, and all I wanted now was my chance to run as fast and jump as far as I could so I'd never have to look back,” he said.
“If I could just win those gold medals, I said to myself, the Hitlers of the world would have no more meaning for me. For anyone, maybe.”
Hitler was aghast Americans would lower themselves to allow African-Americans to compete in the Olympics. Remember, we’re talking of history’s most vicious and clueless racist. Hitler and his flunkies designed the Berlin Games to showcase Nazi ideology, which glorified the lie of white supremacy.
Owens raced to victory in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and the 400-meter relay and soared to victory in the long jump. Hitler, no surprise, refused to shake his hand. But Hitler didn’t want to shake any winner’s hand if that hand didn’t belong to a German.
Roosevelt ranked, in many ways, as a progressive, but invited only white medal winners to The White House. It’s agonizing to say, but in this ugly moment from 1936 FDR performed a superb imitation of Hitler.
A month after returning to America triumphant, Owens spoke to a crowd of 1,000 African-Americans in Kansas City, Mo.
“Hitler didn’t snub me,” Owens said. “It was (Roosevelt) who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
Hagood is haunted by the Owens story. When Owens returned to America, he worked as a playground janitor and, on the side, a carnival-like act, racing against dogs, horses, motorcycles and cars. His own president ignored him, and he became a sideshow.
“This is a situation where it was literally Jesse Owens vs. the world. He’s running essentially against Hitler, and he’s seeking to destroy the Aryan myth and he’s representing America. He destroys this awful man and this white superiority myth, and he’s coming from a country where segregation is the rule,” Hagood says.
“He performed on the highest and the biggest stage in the highest way. He was the greatest ambassador for America in a generation. He carried the country on his back. And he gets no acknowledgement from the president of his country.”
On Aug. 22, 1951, Owens returned to Berlin. Hitler was dead, his wicked Nazi regime in literal ruins. Owens stood in the same stadium where he had roared to his medals as a crowd of 75,000 roared.
Walter Schreiber, the mayor of West Berlin, introduced Owens.
“Hitler would not shake your hand,” Schreiber said. “I give you both hands.”
Owens spoke next. West Germany, split in half from East Germany and plagued with economic chaos, still teetered.
“Stand fast with us in the fight for freedom and democracy under the protection of Almighty God,” Owens said.
And then Owens returned to a segregated nation where he was required to ride in the back of the bus in his native Alabama.
“He gets more respect from the country he defeated in the Olympic Games and whose philosophy he defeated than he did from his own country,” Hagood says.
“There’s nothing more he could have done, and yet doing all he could, he still couldn’t get love from the place he was from. He essentially does the impossible, but he can’t do the other impossible thing of not being a black man from Alabama.”
The saga of Jesse Owens does not end sadly. In the 1950s, Owens began touring the country delivering inspirational speeches. He earned good money. He was finally seen fully for what he was: An American folk hero. He settled in Phoenix, where most mornings he walked two miles to the downtown YMCA for swimming and weightlifting. He, alas, failed to conquer his pack-a-day cigarette habit and died, only 66, of lung cancer in 1980.
He laughed at the way Hitler treated him.
“It was all right,” he said. “All I know is, I’m here and Hitler isn’t.”
He never made jokes about FDR, the president who forsook him.