It will be a brief one this evening.
The very fact that you’ve arrived at this website indicates that either you have an interest in historical events or a search engine believes you do. But regardless of the exact reason, I’ve (to this point) written nothing about events in the 21st century, so something historical drove you here, willingly or no.
Since you’re here, I’m going to assume you know a little something about Jesse Owens, the famed African-American sprinter who set the 1936 Olympic Games on its head. If you want a little more background, I put together a little piece years ago that will flesh out some of the story.
The story of James Cleveland Owens – the name “Jesse” originated from the heavily accented way in which he pronounced the initials “J. C.” – is remarkable both as an athletic story and as a “social conciousness” story. The 1936 Olympics were, as you might know, held in Berlin, Germany. Hitler’s National Socialist party was incredibly racist, believing its own German people were ethnically superior. Others, particularly Jews and Africans, were seen as second class or even sub-human.
So while Owens was shattering records on the track, he was also shattering the racist myth that “blond hair and blue eyes” was better physically and intellectually. It is said that Hitler’s disdain (and embarrassment) at Owens’ dominance caused him to leave the Games early…I don’t know for sure, but that sounds like the guy.
I wasn’t there, but for Americans back home, the news of Owens’ exploits was probably received with mixed reviews. Our country’s founding principles stated that, in God’s eyes (ok…the Creator’s eyes if you want to be technical), everyone is created equal. But in practice, America was way more than a little hypocritical. Certain people, especially those of a different color, were considerably less free than others, and forced separation of the races (we called it Segregation) was the order of the day in many southern states.
Jesse Owens probably felt that hypocrisy when returned to America. Four Gold Medals was an astonishing feat, yet he wasn’t invited to the White House to be honored or celebrated. Owens was quoted as saying, “…it was FDR who snubbed me. The President didn’t even send me a telegram.“ It took nearly thirty-five years to be enshrined in Alabama’s Hall of Fame. Now maybe there are timing rules for that, but it seems ridiculously long to me.
Fortunately, our time has been kinder to Owens than Owens’ time was. President Ford awarded this athletic giant the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 (shown above). And on this day, March 28, 1990, President Bush posthumously awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal. These awards together constitute the highest honors that the government can give a civilian.
It was about time.