Sarah Fling, in The White House Historical Association, 28 June 2021, where the title reads “Running Against the World: Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics”
The 1936 Summer Olympics were unlike any other. In Berlin, Germany, under the shadow of Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, an African-American track and field athlete rose to stardom: Jesse Owens.1
James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens, the descendent of enslaved laborers and son of sharecroppers, was born in Oakville, Alabama in 1913. Like many Black Americans around the turn of the twentieth century, his family left the South in search of new opportunities as part of the Great Migration, eventually relocating to Ohio.2 As a young man, Owens began running for sport and joined his middle and high school track and field teams in Cleveland.3
Owens originally expressed reluctance to participate, but like many Black athletes, he saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to prove himself on the world stage and to discredit ideas of racial inferiority in the United States.10
Notably silent in these conversations was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who avoided involvement with issues related to a boycott of the Olympic Games.11 In the end, an American boycott did not garner adequate support and the United States sent 312 athletes, including Jesse Owens and seventeen other African Americans, to compete in Berlin.12
Adolf Hitler deliberately designed the Berlin Olympics to emphasize German strength and to support his and his regime’s belief in the supremacy of the Aryan race—but Jesse Owens had other plans. During the first week of August 1936, Owens triumphed against his competitors, breaking multiple world records and earning four gold medals in track and field for the 100-meter sprint, the 200-meter sprint, long jump, and the 4 x 100-meter relay.
Archival documentation shows that Americans urged Roosevelt to welcome the track and field star at the White House, but that the president did not invite any athletes, regardless of race, to celebrate at the Executive Mansion. One letter addressed to the president reads:
I am writing today to ask that you make provision for the successful contestants of the Olympic games in Germany to be officially received by yourself upon their return home without regard to race or color. I am certain that you are not aware of the electric effect such an action on your part will have upon the twelve million Negroes in America…16
Unfortunately, President Roosevelt did not receive or contact Jesse Owens, who later commented: “Hitler didn’t snub me—it was our president who snubbed me…The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”17
A number of other presidents and first ladies honored Owens during and after his lifetime, and the track and field star remained in the public eye long after his retirement from amateur sports in 1936. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Owens “Ambassador of Sports,” and asked him to represent the United States at the 1956 Olympics; Owens also traveled to Asia on behalf of the nation during the Cold War as a goodwill ambassador.18 In 1972, he was welcomed to the White House by First Lady Patricia Nixon in celebration of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.19
Meanwhile, Owens raised three daughters with his high school sweetheart, Ruth.
In a White House ceremony held in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden on August 5, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford awarded the star athlete the highest civilian honor possible: The Presidential Medal of Freedom. The citation read: “To Jesse Owens, athlete, humanitarian, speaker, author — a master of the spirit as well as the mechanics of sport. He is a winner who knows that winning is not everything. He has shared with others his courage, his dedication to the highest ideals of sportsmanship. His achievements have shown us all the promise of America and his faith in America has inspired countless others to do their best for themselves and for their country”.20
Owens stood before the crowd that day and emphasized: “I don’t care where anybody lives, I don’t care what they do, because you can be born into anything in this Nation, as I was born in the cottonfields of Alabama, and today I stand before you and shake hands with the Commander-in-Chief of our Nation.21
When President Barack Obama welcomed athletes to the White House after the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016, he invited an additional group of athletes—the families of Jesse Owens and his fellow Black Olympians. Gathering in the East Room, President Obama praised the athleticism and perseverance of the eighteen Black Americans who competed in 1936, stressing: “It was… African-American athletes in the middle of Nazi Germany under the gaze of Adolf Hitler that put a lie to notions of racial superiority — whooped ’em and taught them a thing or two about democracy and taught them a thing or two about the American character.”24