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JESSE OWENS

Jesse Owens Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens is without a doubt one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century if not of all time. His legend is particularly strong among African-Americans and all other people of African descent because he opened the floodgates for aspiring black athletes. It was his heroic achievements both before and after the Berlin Olympics that laid to rest the age-old myth that blacks were an inferior race, incapable of competing with whites. Among those pushing the myth was then German dictator Adolf Hitler, who believed his Aryans(Northern Europeans) were superior beings. Owens' triumph over his Aryans in their homeland discounted all Hitler's propaganda and was seen by many people around the world as a triumph of good over evil.

He was born James Cleveland Owens on September 12th 1913 in the U.S. city of Oakville, Alabama to Henry Cleveland Owens and Emma Fitzgerald Owens. He was the 8th child in a family of 9 children. As a little boy his father used to refer to him as J.C. but when the young James shared his nickname with his elementary school teacher, she understood it to be "Jesse". So James Cleveland Owens ended up being Jesse Owens ever since.

Reports have it that the young Jesse was a sickly child growing up, often exhibiting pneumonia-like symptoms. A lot of this was blamed on the poor conditions under which his family lived for example their cold drafty house and poor diet. Eventhough he came from a poor family and was mostly sick, reports have it that he and his sibblings enjoyed a very happy childhood. He exhibited a passion for running at a very early age. In 1922, Jesse's family relocated northwards to Cleveland, Ohio, where he enrolled at Bolton Elementary School. But the move northwards wasn't that easy for the country southerners. Cleveland was a whole lot different from Oakville, Alabama, and it took a lot of adjusting by the Owenses. The farm smells of soil, plants and animals that they grew accustomed to back in Oakville were now replaced by fumes from factories, steel mills and oil refineries. In addition, now they had to live in apartments that actually had running water and lights, long considered luxuries by them.

At 14 years old Jesse moved to Fairmont Junior High School. It was at Fairmont that he met school heartthrob Minnie Ruth Solomon, then 13 and who he would later wed. Incidentally, Minnie Ruth's family was also form Alabama originally. Jesse led a very active High School life, being the President of the Student Council, Captain of the Hall Guards, and Captain of the Basketball Team, among other activities. It was at Fairmont that Jesse met track coach Charles Riley, who left a lasting impression on him and changed his life. Riley was more than a coach to the young Jesse. He was his mentor both on and off the field. He taught him everything from good running skills to good manners. In 1925, then just 15 years old, Jesse Owens set new records for Junior High School athletes in the High Jump and Long Jump. In the fall of 1930, Jesse Owens moved to East Technical High School where as was expected, he joined the track team. In 1933 he participated at the National Interscholastic Championship Meet at Soldiers Field in Chicago. During the meet, he won the Long Jump(7.55m) and the 220 yard sprint(20.7 seconds), setting new national High School records in both. In the 100 yard sprint he tied the national high school record, then at 9.4 seconds. Jesse's high school came out triumphant in the meet, with him carrying over half of the schools points. Back home in Cleveland he was accorded a hero's welcome and was met by none other than Cleveland's Mayor. It thus became apparent that a new American track star was in the making, and the media set their cameras rolling on him. That same year(1933) he entered Ohio State University(OSU a.k.a. the buckeyes) located in Colombus, Ohio. By making this move he had broken another silent record for being the first in his family to attend college. His track legend continued at OSU, where he earned the nickname "Buckeye Bullet". His new track coach at OSU was Larry Snyder.

In 1934 Jesse Owens was selected by the Amateur Athletic Union(AAU) to the All-America Track & Field Team. On May 25th 1935 during the Big Ten Track & Field Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he tied the World Record in the 100-yard sprint , and set new World Records in the Long Jump, 220-yard sprint and the 200-yard hurdles. This was a monumental achievement by the young Owens because as an amateur college student he had broken 3 World Record and tied a fourth!!! Clearly there was no topping that. In fact its for this reason that many track & field experts still consider Jesse Owens' May 25th Ann Arbor, Michigan performance one of the greatest one-day performances in the history of track & field. That same year he married his high school sweetheart Minnie Ruth Solomon.

After the 1935 Big-Ten Track & Field Championships, all eyes were set on the 1936 Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Berlin, Germany. Germany was then under the leadership of brutal dictator Adolf Hitler who strongly despised other races claiming they were inferior to his Northern European whites(Aryans). He had particular distaste for blacks and jews, who he massacred in the millions. He intended to use the Berlin Olympics to as a showcase for German and Aryan superiority. Eventhough his Germany ended up bagging the most medals and winning the 1936 Olympics, the spotlight was stolen by Jesse Owens who won an amazing 4 gold medals in the 100-meter , 200-meter sprins, long jump and 400-meter relay. The embarrassed Hitler would not even give Owens a congratulatory handshake, as he had done with victorious Northern Europeans. But that was Hitler: Owens was extremely popular among German fans who turned out in large numbers to witness the young African-American make history. The German crowds could be heard loudly chanting his name every time he took to the field. Fans mobbed him for autographs and young boys and girls could be seen trying to get a handshake from him. Even German women(Hitler's "superior" Aryans) were notorious for sending Owens perfumed love letters and marriage proposals knowing full well he was already tied down to Minnie Ruth. All these went to show that Hitler's racist views were not necessarily shared by most Germans.

Immediately after the 1936 Olympics he had turned professional, signing a contract with entertainment agent Marty Forkins. Forkins would arrange money-making appearances for Owens. Owens returned to the U.S. a folk hero with lucrative offers flying left right and central. He became a prime candidate for product endorsement deals eventhough at that time blacks were rarely used for product endorsement. He was also much sought after for speaking engagements, which to him was nothing new because most of his friends will tell you he loved running his mouth anyway. In 1940, after strong persuasion by his former track coach Larry Snyder, he went back to Ohio State University to finish his studies, and assist Larry in coaching track. He had left OSU as a junior to go to the 1936 Olympics. Eventhough this sounded easy on the surface, it was anything but easy for Owens. He struggled to find time to study because his professional engagements kept him busy travelling around the country for the most part. Plus it was not the same atmosphere at OSU as he had left. He was particularly uncomfortable by the fact that his classmates were much younger than him. There was also a very noticeable politically charged atmosphere around the OSU campus and indeed most U.S. campuses around that time(WW II). When the U.S. finally entered the World War II on December 7th 1941 after the Pearl Harbour attacks, Jesse Owens pulled out of College, this time for good.

Since he had a wife and kids, he could not be drafted. Instead the U.S. Office of Civillian Defense asked him to be part of a national fitness program paid for by the federal government. Under this program, he travelled around the country talking about exercise, health and physical fitness. He later moved his family to Detroit, Michigan after he was hired by the Ford Motor Company as a Personnel Director. The Ford Motor Company was experiencing labour shortage at that time because most of its workers(whites) had been drafted to help with the war effort. Owens was thus brought in to recruit African-Americans to fill in the job vacancies. However after the end of the war in 1945 most soldiers returned to their jobs at Ford kicking out the black workers, including Owens. In 1949 Owens moved his family to Chicago where he took up a job as a promotional executive for a clothing store on Chicago's west side.

In 1950 he was named the Greatest Track 7 Field Athlete by the Associated Press(AP). He also began devoting much of his time to helping delinquent youths. He participated actively in the Boy Scouts and in 1955 was appointed by then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower as America's Goodwill Ambassador. As Goodwill Ambassador he travelled to Far East Asian countries like India, Malaysia and Phillipines. During the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia he together with other prominent U.S. athletes were chosen by President Eisenhower to be his Special Representative at the games. Some very sad news however came to Owens in 1960. He learnt that his first coach and childhood mentor Charles Riley had passed away. Owens had always credited Riley with making him the role model that he turned out to be, and needless to say his death was a huge loss for him. What made it even sad for Jesse was that he got the news after he had travelled to the Rome Olympics to watch his other former coach Larry Snyder(OSU) coach the American team at the Olympics. Larry was also a special person to Jesse. So what had geared up to be an exciting Olympics for Owens ended up being a sad one.

In 1964 Owens' popularity prompted him to be the subject of a film Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin. This was a film about his heroic 1936 Olympic performance. The 1960's however turned out to be particularly rough for Owens. You will recall that this was at the height of the civil rights struggle in America. Many black students at that time were not particularly fond of Owens, who they characterized as an "Uncle Tom" for his cozy relationship with the white administration. They demanded that he use his rare prestige and clout to force the government to address issues important to African-Americans and other minorities like racism and economic empowerment. One of the incidents that really put him at loggerheads with most black civil rights activists was during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics where Owens went as a consultant for the U.S. Olympic Committee. During that event, two black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos came in first and third respectively in the 200-meter race. They shocked the crowd when they lowered their heads and raised their black-gloved fists skywards in protest as the American national anthem was being played. This silent civil rights protest made headlines worldwide and seriously incensed the U.S. administration. Owens later addressed the incident saying to the two black athletes, "You are fighting the good battle...but fight it on the right battle field. The Olympic arena is not that battlefield." His position drew a lot of criticism from black civil rights activists while at the same time gaining a lot of praise from the U.S. government.

While some most blacks felt, and justifiably so, that he should have done more for their cause during the 60's given his high stature in society, I think it was unfair for them to bluntly characterize him as an "Uncle Tom". Owens was born and lived his childhood at a time when racism was still very prevalent in America; much more prevalent than what the young student protestors criticizing him had witnessed in their lives. Plus, being originally from Alabama, where racism was the order of the day, he must have empathized with the conditions of his fellow blacks. He probably just didn't agree with the approach most of the protestors in the 60's took to resolve the issues. On top of that, love him or hate him, just by his sheer athletic accomplishments, he had contributed a lot to people of black descent worldwide. At a time when blacks were considered inferior and good for nothing, he brought a lot of pride to the community and opened floodgates for other blacks to pursue professional sports. Many blacks making crazy money in professional sports today are all reaping the fruits of Jesse Owens hard work, and its why he should be remembered as a great African-American and not an "Uncle Tom".

Jesse Owens was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree in Athletic Arts by Ohio State University in 1972 and in 1974 was inducted into the Track & Field Hall of Fame. In 1976 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest peacetime honour from then U.S. President Gerald R. Ford. In 1978 he and his wife Minnie Ruth retired from active public duties and settled in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was in Arizona that he died two years later on March 31st 1980 of lung cancer. Flags in Arizona flew at half-mast to the day he was accorded a Hero's burial

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