Positively Speaking: Jesse Owens


By Toby Moore

For Capital Region Independent Media

Headshot of man named Toby Moore
Toby Moore

Jesse Owens was born in 1913 in Alabama, to a family of sharecroppers, amid the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination.

At the age of seven, he went to work in the fields, expected to pick a hundred pounds of cotton a day; he battled health conditions, including bronchitis and pneumonia.

His family moved to Ohio when he was nine for a better life.

In his youth, he quickly discovered that he had a natural talent for running. He was known for his exceptional speed, strength and agility, and he soon became one of the best runners in his school and community.

He attended Ohio State, and quickly became one of the country’s most dominant track and field athletes, setting multiple world records and winning numerous national championships.

He was captain of the Buckeye Track & Field team, yet he wasn’t allowed to eat with his teammates or live on campus because of his skin color.

He could easily have let his circumstances turn him into an angry and hateful young man, but he had no time for that; he was focused on his dreams.

In 1935, he competed at the Big 10 Championship and displayed such impressive athleticism it’s known as one of the most incredible performances in college sports history.

Realizing he could achieve Olympic gold, he set his sights on the 1936 games.

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics were held in the shadow of Nazi power, and the Hitler regime saw the games as an opportunity to showcase the supposed superiority of the Aryan race.

The oppressive nature of Nazi ideology sparked many Americans’ calls for a boycott of the games. Owens likely realized that competing in Nazi Germany was not all that different from competing in the United States, where Jim Crow laws shared many values with the hateful ideology of Adolf Hitler.

Owens’ stunning performance caught the Nazi propaganda machine off guard. They weren’t prepared for the success of an African-American athlete like Owens, who dominated his events.

Hitler was visibly upset; he walked out on medal ceremonies that had Black athletes and refused to shake their hands. He was reportedly angry that Owens was allowed to compete. 

Owens’ success remains one of the most astonishing moments in Olympic history, shattering Hitler’s ideology in front of the world.

After winning four gold medals, Owens became an overnight sensation. He was celebrated for his athletic prowess and was offered numerous lucrative job opportunities.

Immediately after the Olympics, Owens was required to go on a European tour organized by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to showcase his talents, expected to pay his way even though he struggled financially.

Faced with a difficult choice, Owens’ coach advised him to return home and take advantage of the new opportunities that awaited him. This decision had unintended consequences.

The AAU banned him from competing in any sanctioned event for the rest of his life. It must have been heartbreaking.

As if that wasn’t enough, he and the other Black Olympians were not invited to the White House to meet the President along with the white Olympians. To add insult to injury, it turned out that none of the lucrative job offers were genuine.

He later said, “…It became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back and shake my hand … But no one was going to offer me a job.”

Instead, he tried to make money as an athlete but couldn’t compete against humans. In one demeaning exhibition, Owens raced a horse and won, a far cry from the recognition he deserved after his Olympic victories.

Through the hurdles and obstacles he faced, Owens persevered. Crossing the finish line and turning a corner toward a brighter future.

Owens found meaning in helping underprivileged children and eventually became a sought-after speaker, invited to events nationwide.

Despite the injustices he had faced, he never displayed anger or bitterness in his speeches. Instead, he radiated kindness and positivity, inspiring others to chase their dreams fearlessly.

The world tried to strip Jesse Owens of everything, but he remained triumphant, for they couldn’t take away his heart and soul. 

Jesse Owens was a real American hero.

Toby Moore is a columnist, the star of Emmy-nominated “A Separate Peace,” and the CEO of Cubestream Inc.

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