Jesse Owens: The Man Who Broke The Racial Barrier

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“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort”. These words were said by the man who changed all of history in 1936. He would open the path for others like Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell to break their own sports’ racial barriers. He conquered the strongest man in the world with only his legs and a burning desire to run. He said these words because he had a dream and displayed all of these traits to accomplish it. His name was Jesse Owens, and he was a track runner who single-handedly brought racial diversity to sports, thus making him a catalyst for change.

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James Cleveland Owens was born on September 12, 1913, in rural Alabama as the seventh child of a poor family that worked as sharecroppers. Since he was young, he enjoyed running because of the freedom associated with it. Unfortunately, many restrictions stood in his way to the path of greatness, the most significant of which was the Jim Crow laws, which placed many horrid conditions on African-American people. However, he received the change he needed when his family moved to Cleveland. There, young “J.C” was able to go to school and participate in multiple sports, including track. In high school, at East High, he became a star sprinter, and in 1933, he tied the world record for the 100 meter. His ambition to run pushed toward Ohio State University, where he was able to further his talent and popularity by setting three world records in a Big 10 meet. At this point, Jesse was aware of his talent, but what he was not aware of was that his talent and success would make him more than just a great athlete, but also an inspiration to millions of people around the world.

While Owens was breaking world records here and there at college, there was major change occurring in Germany. Adolf Hitler had just been appointed chancellor in 1933, and with many globally controversial beliefs, was able to host the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This was not just a competition for him however; it was a necessary message. He desired to show that the German European race, also known as the Aryans, was superior to all others, and all others should be subjected as slaves or servants. Although not as poorly viewed as Jews, African-Americans were still viewed as “slaves” to Hitler. There was even controversy over whether Americans were allowed to participate in the Olympics due to the growing feud between Germany and America. Despite all this vocal news, Owens longed to show his talent on a global front, and the Olympics were the perfect place to display it. As a result, he decided to join the Olympics, and to everyone’s surprise, won 4 gold medals in the 100 m, 200 m, 400 m, and the long jump. Although Germany led with the most medals due to its vastly larger number of athletes participating, the U.S, led by Owens, took home the most track and field medals. Although Germany had come in with a political point to prove, the German people adored Owens and chanted his name constantly. Even more he was able to gain a close friend in Carl Long, a German long jumper. What was more important about it, though, was the fact that it was the first Olympics to be broadcasted, as millions of people were able to witness the temporary takedown of Germany by a single African-American.

Life after the Olympics wasn’t as glorious for Jesse at first as many would believe. He would go back to America only to never run again due to personal choice. He even says that he never got recognition from President Roosevelt and did not get the recognition of being able to visit the White House. At one point, he even filed for bankruptcy and spent years in a state of relative poverty. Though he was not able to meet the president, he still was able to influence even more people by spending time with underprivileged youth in Chicago and traveling around the world to address various youth groups and black history programs. His greatness was finally recognized in the mid-70s, when in 1976 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom and in 1979 the Living Legend Award. Jimmy Carter, then the president, described Jesse and his historic accomplishments perfectly by saying, ‘Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others”.

Jesse Owens died on March 31, 1980 due to complications with lung cancer, yet his accomplishments never died. Throughout his life, he influenced others so much that after his death, the Jesse Owens Foundation was created to provide support to kids with “untapped” potential. Additionally, in 2016, the movie “Race” was created to show Owens’ life and experience with the Berlin Olympics and encountering Hitler. Furthermore, his success in high school led to the Jesse Owens Award, which is handed out to the top track and field athlete in America. Life for him was very similar to how we depict movie characters today and their perseverance. His life started off appearing to be a recipe for disaster, but after one change to his lifestyle, he became the man who broke the racial barrier. Jimmy Carter said that Owens “affirmed that individual excellence, rather than race or national origin, distinguishes one man from another”. Owens defined the quality of excellence, and his resilience makes him a catalyst because without him, sports would not be as diverse as they are today.  

16 December 2021

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