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ATLANTA 1996 / 50 DAYS TO THE GAMES : Brothers in Sport : Despite Differences, Jesse Owens, Luz Long Struck up Friendship at 1936 Berlin Olympics

May 30, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — The lessons of history, as Marge Schott reminds us, are soon forgotten. It's been 60 years since Jesse Owens' performance at the Berlin Olympics, an event that now seems as much a part of our national lore as the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, and as distant.

It began as a Nazi pageant and turned into a drama that seemed to presage the American triumph in World War II: Owens winning the 100 meters . . . Adolf Hitler snubbing him . . . a German long jumper named Luz Long daring to openly befriend the black American . . . Owens amassing four gold medals in a powerful advertisement of the glory of a free society.

"He just had that kind of carriage," says Owens' widow, Ruth, wistfully. "Look how long he's lasted. Jesse's been dead for 16 years and he gets more publicity now than a lot of athletes who are participating this year.

"Sometimes I have to just sit and tears come to my eyes when I think about it. You say to yourself, 'Well, gee, he had to be a heck of a fellow to last this long.' "

Owens was, indeed, special. He set an indoor sprint record that lasted 40 years. He set a long jump record that lasted longer than Bob Beamon's. But he was more than an athlete. For a moment, Owens embodied the spirit of a rising young nation and the things he saw and did will never be forgotten.

Some of them even happened.

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In the first place, the United States in 1936 was only "free" or "open" in a relative sense.

American society was still widely segregated. The armed services wouldn't be integrated for 12 more years and until then there were quotas for black enlistees, who were often steered away from combat. In segments of the country, blacks went to "separate but equal" schools; the Supreme Court wouldn't mandate integration for 18 more years.

Owens was the youngest of 10 children of an Alabama sharecropper who lived near the hamlet of Oakville in 1913. On the day Owens was born, his biographer, William Baker, notes the nearby Decatur Daily reported a black man had been arrested and fined $100 for having "offered an insult" to a white woman, by loitering too long near her home while delivering ice.

The Owens family moved to Cleveland in the early '20s. Ruth, who met Jesse in junior high when he was 15--he sent her a note--says their neighborhood was mixed, with little tension between the races. As a senior at East Tech High School, Owens was elected student council president.

However, Ohio State University in downstate Columbus was another matter.

Baker's biography, "An American Life," notes that just before Owens arrived in 1933, the NAACP had sued Ohio State, claiming that two black students had been denied campus housing.

"Knowing the feelings in Ohio," school president George Rightmire asked, "can the administration take the burden of establishing this relationship--colored and white girls living in this more or less family way?"

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the school. Owens never lived in campus housing, boarding with other black students and, after he and Ruth married, moving in with her cousin, Fannie.

Blacks could not eat in the restaurants along High Street, adjacent to the university, nor attend the movie theaters. Jesse, a determined optimist and a believer in the soft-spoken industry espoused by Booker T. Washington, never complained, but college teammates later told Baker that Columbus was "a cracker town . . . just like Jackson, Miss."

*

Owens, a prodigy, made the Olympic team in his junior year. There was growing uneasiness among competing nations about the political overtones but if Jesse was worried about it, he gave no sign.

"I don't think he was aware of the conditions that existed over there," says Ruth, now living in a pleasant apartment in a high rise here on South Lake Shore Drive.

"He was very young and he had to work very hard to make the Olympic team. I don't think Hitler or anything else could have kept him away. You know athletes, they don't see color. And he had been an athlete all his life."

For Germans, the games were to symbolize the rebirth since their World War I defeat. The 110,000-seat stadium was said to have been built "under the personal direction" of the new chancellor, Hitler.

These were no longer Hitler's "early days," recently romanticized by Schott, the Cincinnati Reds' owner. Jailed for his part in a failed coup, Hitler had written "Mein Kampf" behind bars in 1925, asserting that Aryans were a "genius race," Jews were "parasites" and Germany was entitled to "living space" to the east in lands occupied by "Slavs and Marxists."

The games were also a symbol of his rise to chancellor. The Olympic torch was delivered to a rally of 30,000 uniformed Hitler Youth members, addressed by propaganda minister Josef Goebbels and Hitler, himself.

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