“Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans”. -President Jimmy Carter
Unlike most historical events throughout the centuries, which typically reach the apex of their importance in the closest proximity to when they took place, what Jesse Owens accomplished at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin would grow in importance almost exponentially with the passage of time. It’s not that it wasn’t appreciated when it captivated the world in that summer of 1936, but merely that its import was markedly greater than that a decade later when Adolph Hitler had fully matriculated from being an ominously scary dictator to the instigator of unfathomable genocide. With the passage of another half-century, Owens’ accomplishment is further magnified by its linkage to the Civil Rights Movement, the unrelenting character he exemplified if the face of oppression and a life dedicated to helping others.
The youngest of 10 children when he was born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama, J.C., as he was called, was 9 years old when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922, yet another family seeking a better life and greater opportunities in what was known as The Great Migration as 1.5 million African Americans left Jim Crow and the segregated South behind. Faced with the unrelenting harshness of poverty, he worked numerous jobs growing up, all the while making time to nurture his obvious athletic gifts. His true greatness as an athlete began to emerge at East Technical High School in Cleveland, where he quickly rose to national prominence, equaling the world record in the 100-yard dash (9.4 seconds) and long jumping 24 feet 9 ½ inches at the 1933 National High School Championships in Chicago.
In college at Ohio State, despite suffering the indignities that would befall black athletes competing in intercollegiate sports in the 1930’s, Jesse Owens won a record eight NCAA individual championships, four each in 1935 and 1936, quickly establishing himself as the greatest track star of his era. In a landmark feat of unprecedented dominance, he set three world records and tied a fourth at a Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1935. One of those was a long jump record that would survive for 25 years, an almost unheard of duration for any new milestone in track.
With his college laurels in tow and an international reputation in track already in hand, Owens boarded an ocean liner for the voyage to Germany in the summer of 1936 to compete in an Olympics that was already besieged by controversy. With the European Continent convinced of an impending terror from Chancellor Hitler and a terrifying Third Reich there was a genuine sentiment that the United States must boycott the 1936 Games. Many US officials opposed contributing to what they believed would be a grotesque effort by Hitler to propagandize the Games in promoting his notion of Aryan supremacy and showcasing a resurgent Nazi Germany.
Into that maelstrom strode Owens, headlining a group of other world-class black track stars. Demonstrating profound courage and resolve, Owens decimated Hitler’s plans with one of the greatest individual athletic feats in the history of sports. In the space of a week’s time he captured four gold medals (the 100 meter, the long jump, the 200 meter and the 400-meter relay), and broke two Olympic records along the way. Owens record for the world broad jump would last 25 years until being broken by Olympian Irvin Roberson in 1960. After Owens won the 100-meter event, a furious Hitler stormed out of the stadium, though some reports indicate that Hitler later congratulated the athlete on his success. A remarkably even-keeled and magnanimous human being, Owens never trumpeted his success in the face of his German host. Just as sure as he knew fascism was evil, he also knew his own country, one that trumpeted freedom and liberty around the world, practiced something far less than that at home.
While Owens helped the U.S. triumph at the games, his return home was not met with the kind of fanfare one might expect. President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to meet with Owens and congratulate him, as was typical for champions. The athlete wouldn’t be properly recognized until 1976, when President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The mild-mannered Owens seemed not the least bit surprised by his home country’s hypocrisy. “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” he said. “I had to go to the back door. 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.”
Following the Olympics, Owens desire to return home rather than embark on a European fundraising tour resulted in him being stripped of his amateur athletic standing. Banned from competing in any sanctioned sporting event in the U.S., the athlete returned to a country with its own racial divide. Owens eventually found his calling in public relations and marketing, setting up a business for himself in Chicago, Illinois, and traveling frequently around the country to speak at conventions and other business gatherings. While he worked to support his wife and three daughters Owens steadfastly committed himself throughout his life, to working with disadvantaged youths, sharing of himself and the little material wealth that he had. He was as much the champion on the playground in the poorest neighborhoods as he was on the oval of the Olympic Games. Through his living example he held out hope to millions of young people.
The son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, Jesse Owens achieved what no Olympian before him had accomplished. His stunning performance during the 1936 Olympic Games not only discredited heinous claims of the dictator, Adolph Hitler, it also affirmed that individual excellence rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man or woman from another. The Olympics were only the starting block for Jesse Owens ultimate victory. Jesse Owens died of lung cancer in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980. His life and legacy will continue to inspire for generations to come.
SCP Auctions is proud to present property from the Jesse Owens Estate Collection.
PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM PRESENTED TO OWENS BY PRESIDENT GERALD FORD IN 1976 – $128,617
JESSE OWENS’ CONGRESSIONAL 22K GOLD MEDAL (18 OZ.) ISSUED POSTHUMOUSLY TO OWENS BY PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH IN 1990 – $85,592
JESSE OWENS’ 1936 BERLIN OLYMPIC GAMES 1ST PLACE WINNER’S DIPLOMA FOR THE MEN’S 200 METER DASH – $41,430