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Did You Know? . . . Jesse Owens

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.” -Galatians 3:28

There is a myriad of stories of valor and hardships specific to the Olympic Games, but one stands out regarding racial equity issues: the Berlin Games of 1936. One member of the 1936 American team was Jesse Owens, a black man, who was born in 1913 in Alabama, the grandson of a slave, son of a sharecropper, and one of ten children.

In the months before the Olympics, Chancellor Adolf Hitler had risen to authoritarian dictatorship. He insisted that all non-Nazi government parties, organizations, and labor unions in Germany cease to exist. The Nazis’ sports office ordered that all athletic organizations must be “Aryans-only.” (excluding non-whites and Jews) Global outrage resulted, with organizers in Europe and the United States considering pulling out of the games. By a narrow vote, they decided to participate.

Jesse Owens aptly won four gold medals, the first American to ever do so.

Upon returning to the US, Owens found it hard to find work, settling on janitorial jobs and working as a playground instructor, among others. In 1955 President Dwight Eisenhower named Owens as Ambassador of Sports, when he became a motivational speaker and a world figure. Owens died at sixty-six years of age.

In 2016 President Obama welcomed relatives of Jesse Owens and the families of his seventeen black American teammates who had competed in Berlin to the White House. Obama said, “but it wasn’t just Jesse, it was other 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 them – and taught them a thing or two about democracy and taught them a thing or two about the American character.”