In 1936, Olympian runner Jesse Owens won four gold medals during the Berlin games, showing Hitler that race did not make a person inferior to another.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Brittany: Hi, Emma.
Emma: Hi, Brittany.
Brittany: So we have started diving into a few different episodes about World War II. We couldn’t do just one because honestly, it’s such a big historical event, you can’t really cover it in one episode. And now, I don’t know if you know this, a lot of people are saying like they’re just gonna call it the Great World Wars or something because World War I and World War II were so closely connected that people.
Brittany: Yeah. So I, studied, World War II for a long time in college and a lot of the professors there were challenging that. And they’re saying, you know what? World War II is really just like, there was a pause and then World War I continued. So there’s so much to talk about that again, it would be impossible to cover one episode. I took an entire course in college and it took three months to barely scratch the surface. Yeah. So Connor and I will be diving into like the nitty gritty details here soon. and we did talk about tyrants recently on another episode, and one of them we mentioned is Hitler. Now all this to say, we’re not even talking about World War II today. So all this, this whole monologue to say, this episode is about Jesse Owens, but if you want to know why Jesse Owens is so important, you kind of have to understand the historical context behind that. And a lot of it is Hitler and the Holocaust and all these things. So today we’ll talk about why this is so important. And one thing to remember is a couple of weeks ago, cause we record in advance, so a couple of weeks, maybe a month or two ago, we had the Olympics. The Olympics are a big event now, Connor and I did a whole episode on why I don’t like the Olympics, and that has to do with funding and tax dollars and all that stuff. But this particular Olympics so than in 1936 were a very big deal, and that is because of Jesse Owens. So Emma, you actually mentioned him on a separate episode, which is what kind of inspired me to do this. do you wanna get us started by talking a little bit about, you know, his life, where he comes from?
Emma: Sure. So Jesse was the youngest of 10 kids and he was actually the grandson of a slave. And originally he was named Jc, but he started going by Jesse after his family moved from Ohio to the south. And when a teacher asked him his name, his accent was actually so thick that she thought he said Jesse and he went by that name ever since then. That’s so funny. So it is. So Jesse worked a bunch of odd jobs when he was a kid to help out his family, and he eventually realized that he had a passion for running and his high school, or sorry his junior high school coach, inspired him to really hone in and practice and improve his skill. And since Jesse had to work so many jobs, his coach let him practice early in the morning before school.
Brittany: You know, I say this a lot, I think I say this every time this comes up, but there again, we see this theme with, you know, the heroes we talk about where they’re always helping their families, they’re always working multiple jobs, they’re always, and not to say that somebody who had like a cushy life can’t also grow up and do amazing things. people do amazing things all the time. But I just really love that that theme is always running through most of our stories. That you don’t have to be born into these great circumstances, you know, and look at him, I can’t remember who we talked about a couple weeks ago, but somebody, I mean, they’re always, they’re always like working all these jobs at a very young age. I dunno, I just think that’s really cool. It is. So it didn’t take long for Jesse to actually like start setting these world, or like, not world records, but I think like state records, high school records. and that’s really when the nation started paying attention to him. And one thing to remember is in this time, so the Olympics were in 1936, this was before then. So this is 1920s, 1930s. Black Americans were not treated with a lot of respect during this time. you know, obviously, some places were better than others. You know, the south is probably going to be worse than Ohio. I say that as somebody who’s never been to Ohio. So I really don’t know, but I would imagine it might be slightly better. Obviously, places like New York, east Coast were always a little bit better as well. But, so he’s in Ohio and he starts to set all these records and he actually got a nickname called Buckeye Bullet during his time when he graduated, went to Ohio State University. So he won, Owens won a record for, what is it? I think so National Collegiate Association, athletic Association. NCAA, aa, no, NCAA duh. Okay. So he won eight individual championships and four of those were in 1935 and the other four were in 1936. and he also set a record of four gold medals, but we’ll get to that in a minute. So as beloved as he was by his classmates, like when he was in high school and college because of segregation, and imagine how terrible this would be when his team traveled for competitions. You know, like when your team goes to different states or plays different cities, he had to eat at separate restaurants or he had to get takeout and go back to his hotel. But he could not stay at the same hotel with his as teammates either because of his skin color. So, I mean, imagine that overcoming that a lot of being on a team with somebody is that camaraderie, that being together and, and, you know, fighting for a similar thing. And he had to go back to his own hotel. He couldn’t even live on campus with them. He had to go, live with other African Americans in like a different dorm. All right. So according to Wikipedia, and this gets into how great he is on May 25th, 1935, that’s the day that’s re-remembered. When Jesse Owen established four world records in athletics, Owen achieved track and field immortality in a span of 45 minutes. On this day during the Big 10 meet at Fairy Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied of fourth, he equaled the world record. That means like he didn’t beat it, but he measured up to it. he equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds and set the world records in the long jump. So he jumped 26 feet, wait, it’s like more than 26 feet, like nearly 27 feet, which is nuts to me.
Emma: So crazy.
Brittany: Yeah. that world record wouldn’t be broken for 25 years. And then he also won, he did like a 200-yard sprint in 20 seconds and then 220-yard low hurdles in 22 seconds. I don’t know what that is to be honest with you, cuz I’m not in track and field but impressive nonetheless. So eventually he made it into the 1936 Olympic Games. So, Emma, I’m gonna let you kind of take it from there and talk about it first of all. Why was it so significant or what was so significant about a black American competing in the 1936 Olympic games?
Emma: Totally. Well, for starters, these Olympic games, so this year they’re being held in Tokyo back in 1936. In the summer they were being held in Berlin, Germany, which was Nazi Germany. And, the Nazis believed that people who were not white or Anglo or they called it arian, basically white people, they believed that everyone who did not fit into that box was inferior. And a lot of that also, they believed that they weren’t as smart, that they weren’t as capable of, you know, the same physical tasks. So, there was a ton of racism, like legitimate racism in Nazi Germany at that time. And a lot of people tried to convince Jesse Owens not to compete, the NAACP, which is the National Association, oh gosh, let me think about this for a second. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was a really influential organization. when people were pushing for the civil rights movement, they tried to convince him not to compete and then they e eventually convinced Jesse Owens to declare that if there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics. So he kind of went back and forth for a bit. There was some controversy, and then he eventually took part after someone high up in the Olympic Committee called him an unAmerican agitator.
Brittany: You know, I, really think that, sorry to cut you off there. No, go, go for, but I can’t imagine if I was being put in the same situation and I’ll, you know, I’ll kick it to you in a second to kind of answer that. But on the one hand, I understand that right. Hitler’s coming to power, there’s all this hatred against anyone that isn’t wife. Yeah. But at the same time, you have worked your whole life as somebody who’s been an underdog more or less Yeah. To get into the Olympics, which is, you know, one of the greatest national honors, despite how I feel about the Olympics and you can listen to the other episode for that one, you know, that’s a great honor for athletes. In fact, it’s probably like the highest honor. So I really don’t know what I would do because it’s like this opportunity, you don’t wanna give up. But at the same time, maybe you wanna make a political stance of saying Yeah. And this is before the Holocaust really got going, so I mean there weren’t people being killed in mass yet in Germany, but yeah, I mean, can you imagine, what would you do, Emma?
Emma: Oh man, it’s, I would be conflicted as well. I can see why he kind of went back and forth on this because it’s sort of like every story like this, you hear people who have to come to these difficult decisions, and a lot of the times, you know, it’s not some storybook fairytale where the path is just super clear on what the right thing to do is. He had to consider his options and he had to figure out what he wanted to do. And the main reason that he is famous now is because he chose to go to Nazi Germany and he chose to go compete with people who thought that he was subhuman, that he was not as much of a human as white people. And he showed up and he proved them wrong. And he set numerous records that day. He won gold medals. And that’s why he goes down in history as this amazing legend for, for the civil rights movement and just for the equality movement in general, is just that he showed up and rather than sitting it out or rather than, you know, talking from the sidelines, which he would’ve been completely within his rights to do, he just decided to show up and do what he did best and compete and prove that these people, these racists were wrong. And this was a bad look for Germany. It was a bad look for Hitler and all of these people who were talking about all this crazy stuff and trying to convince people of a bunch of evil ideas, he showed up and he proved them wrong. And that’s why he’s such a hero in history and someone to look up to. You know, when you’re facing difficult situations in your life and maybe you don’t know what the most clear path forward is, it can be really hard to determine that. But when you read stories about folks, like Jesse Owens who have stood up and who made a decision and did what they needed to do, it can kind of help you figure out what to do in your own life. So that’s why I really like him and why I look up to him.
Brittany: That’s a really good point. You know, using him as an example, if you’re ever, I mean, most of us are not going to compete in the Olympics, but if you do, you know, you never know who’s standing up for something. Now also, like imagine being Hitler and this is my favorite, well, don’t imagine being, obviously nobody wants to be Hitler, but imagine being Hitler and he’s, you know, this was supposed to be a big thing for Germany. This was supposed to be like, the debut of the Nazi party. Like, look at us, we are gonna have everything together. Like our German people are so athletic cuz athletic athleticism, can we speak athleticism was such a big part of their, of their you know, ideal culture. you know, we’re gonna overtake everybody. We’re gonna win everything. Like this is gonna be the greatest people are gonna see how, you know, superior we are. And then you have a black American kid who came from a poor family, kick everyone’s trash, so to speak, win four gold medals, and then you’re just sitting there like, oh no. So, at the end, I guess it’s customary or it was back then for the president of whatever country’s hosting, and I have not heard this recently, so maybe this is an old thing to go and like shake the hands of the winners. And there was this big thing of like, oh, is Hitler gonna do this? And I guess originally what happened was he congratulated his own people and then just like walked away, which nobody was that surprised about. But at some point, I guess Jesse Owens walked past him and Hitler actually ended up congratulating him and shaking his hand. And I, when I read that I was like, I wonder like what that would be like. Seriously. And people gave him a lot of a flack for like, why did you, you know, shake his hand? He’s like, honestly, like, what would you, what would you do? I’m walking past Hitler and he’s like, good job in Germany. Right. So I just, that part of the story was really interesting to me.
Emma: That is, yeah, it’s, he’s a fascinating guy, a fascinating legacy. we will be sure to find some sort of biographical article if you’re interested in learning more about him and more about kind of what was happening in the 1936 Olympics. It’s sort of an interesting little view into the world at that time and everything that was going on. But Brittany, thanks for chatting about this with me. We’re gonna wrap it up here and we will talk to you all later.
Brittany: Talk to you later.