We always hold our breath when Hollywood, the publishing industry and the media delve into the intricacies of the Black experience, and now we await “Race,” a film about the exploits of track and field great Jesse Owens. From the advance promotion and trailer, the film seems to focus on Owens’ victories in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, in which he totally vanquished Adolf Hitler’s notion of the superior Aryan race. Let us hope that the film goes beyond this heroic moment to capture a few other triumphs in Owens’ glorious life, some of which we can briefly disclose here.
Between Oakville, Ala., where he was born Sept. 12, 1913, to Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago, where he is buried, Owens—born James Cleveland—distinguished himself in track like few others in American history. A grandson of slaves whose parents were sharecroppers, Owens was a frail child, often burdened with chronic bronchial congestion and pneumonia. Nonetheless, he went to the cotton fields, and at the age of 7 he was usually picking 100 pounds of cotton a day in order to help supplement his family’s meagre earnings.
He was 9 years old when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was a dramatic change of life and a fortuitous one for a young person with aspirations beyond the limitations of Black life in the South. From several accounts of his life, we learn how he acquired “Jesse” as opposed to his given name of James. Apparently one of his teachers had difficultly deciphering his Southern accent and misunderstood his “J.C.” for James Cleveland to be Jesse.
As a student and track star at Cleveland’s East Technical High School, Owens set national records in the 100- and 220-yard dashes as well as in the long jump. His track supremacy continued at Ohio State University, and in 1935, he tied a world record in the 100-yard dash and a long jump record of 26 feet and 8.25 inches that would stand for a quarter of a century. Despite a nagging tailbone injury, he would set world marks in the 220-yard dash and at the same distance in the low hurdles.
It was an eventful and dominant year for Owens that was only beginning to reach a special plateau at the Olympic Games the following year. With the rise of Nazi Germany in world politics, Hitler felt the same supremacy would prevail in culture and in sports. The Olympic Games was to be his showcase for his belief in the Aryan supremacy. He looked forward to his athletes trouncing the U.S. with a special dislike and hatred for the country’s Black participants.
Many people have seen Leni Riefenstahl’s film clips from the games, in which Owens paved the way for conquest with a 10.3-second victory in the 100-meter dash. Riefenstahl had been commissioned by the Ministry of Propaganda to capture Germany’s success, but her films also showed Hitler’s anger and disappointment when, race after race, event by event, Owens and his teammates—including Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson—made shambles of his myth of superiority.
The four gold medals Owens won in 1936 were almost as uplifting for African-Americans, who were still suffering under a continuing fiscal crisis, as when Joe Louis delivered Hitler’s dream another devastating blow with a first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in 1938.
Owens was a national hero when he returned to America from the Olympics. He was showered with a ticker-tape parade on Fifth Avenue, though at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel he had to use the freight entrance to attend the reception in his honor. Rather than embarking on a world tour arranged by the Amateur Athletic Union, he chose to see how he could promote his career in Hollywood. He was following a path established by other athletes—Babe Ruth, Esther Williams, John Wayne and especially Johnny Weissmuller—but there were few opportunities available. Moreover, his tiff with the AAU proved to be costly.
To make ends meet, Owens went on the vaudeville circuit in a number of money-making routines. A year after his victories in Berlin, he was in Cuba, where a race had been set for him to run against a race horse. Stock footage of the race can be seen on YouTube. Owens beat the horse, even though the horse cheated by cutting across the infield turf.
“He had a family to come home to, and he did everything he could do to support them,” said Owens’ granddaughter Gina Hemphill-Strachan. “I think that some of things that he did back then, like working at gas stations and running against racehorses, unfortunately were the only types of things available to him because of the era.”
More humiliating than the appearances at various social and cultural events was the unfair castigation he received from Black Americans who wanted him to speak out more against racism and discrimination. Instead, he ended up on the wrong side of protests, particularly when he voiced his outrage against the Black athletes in Mexico during the 1968 Olympics. He was called an “Uncle Tom” for not supporting John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who had raised their fists in protest against the racist policies in the U.S.
When he wasn’t racing horses, he was racing other humans in competitions from city to city, where contestants were often given 10- to 20-yard head starts only to be beaten. But this brought in very little money. In 1943, as World War II heated up, Owens was hired in the public relations department at the Ford Motor Company. His public appearances were done to promote the company, and but this was a short stint. Two years later, Owens opened his own sporting goods store in Detroit. That too was of short duration.
In 1953, Owens was appointed to the Illinois State Athletic Commission and two years later President Dwight D. Eisenhower named him “Ambassador of Sports.” In this capacity, he traveled across the country as a motivational speaker. He was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974.
President Gerald Ford awarded Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976.
Owens, once called the “Buckeye Bullet,” died on March 31, 1980, in Tucson, Arizona. He was 66.
“Race,” the film starring Stephan James, opens nationally Feb. 19.