Manny P. here…
Shortly after Jesse Owens returned home from his snubbing by Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics, he and 17 other black Olympians found a less-than-welcoming reception from their own government, as well. On Thursday, relatives of those 1936 African-American Olympians will be welcomed to the White House to shake the president’s hand — an honor Owens and the others didn’t receive, the way some of their white counterparts did, after they returned home from Berlin 80 years ago.
At the 1936 Olympics, Owens won four Gold medals. But, it was the message Owens’ victories sent by winning in Nazi Germany and undercutting Hitler’s white-supremacy dogma that stood as the lasting memory of those games. Owens returned to a segregated America where he had trouble finding steady work, and where, according to his interviews in later years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, never sent him any words of congratulations, or an invitation to the White House.
Athletes didn’t return from the Olympics to lucrative advertising and product endorsement campaigns in those days, and Owens supported his young family with a variety of jobs. One was of special significance – playground director in Cleveland. It was his first step into a lifetime of working with underprivileged youth, which gave him his greatest satisfaction. After relocating to Chicago, he devoted much of his time to underprivileged youth as a board member and former director of the Chicago Boys’ Club.
Owens traveled widely in his post-Olympic days. He was an inspirational speaker, highly sought after to address youth groups, professional organizations, civic meetings, sports banquets, PTAs, church organizations, brotherhood and black history programs, as well as high school and college commencements and ceremonies. He was also a public relations representative and consultant to many corporations, including Atlantic Richfield, Ford, and United States Olympic Committee.
Decades later, Owens was acknowledged and honored at the White House. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Owens died of lung cancer in 1980. Since then, a street and a school have been named after him in Berlin, two United States postage stamps have been issued in his honor, and a memorial park has been opened in Alabama. Earlier this year, Race, a wonderful bio-flick about the life of Jesse Owens, brought needed attention to the initial snub.
Owens daughter, Marlene Owens-Rankin, will be among the relatives visiting the White House. The stories of the other 17 blacks on that team were less-widely known. Thursday’s event was meant to give overdue White House recognition to those athletes, who accounted for 14 of America’s 56 medals in Berlin.
United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun announced the upcoming visit at a Team USA Awards ceremony. The announcement came on the same night the USOC invited Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were booted from the 1968 Olympics for their gloved-fist protest on the medals stand, to be part of the awards show. Smith and Carlos hadn’t been involved in an official USOC event since being sent home from Mexico City. The Gold and Bronze medal-winning sprinters will be at the White House on Thursday, as well.
The recent protest by NFL players during the National Anthem also brought attention to the 1968 sprinters that pioneered this way of making a statement during the raising of our colors.
Until next time> “never forget”