I didn’t think about it quite like this until I was standing in line at the movie theater. I only see a handful of movies each year, but Race had been on my must-see list since I first saw its trailer. And I wasn’t alone: a few friends waited with me. But I noticed the rest of the small group ready to file into the seats inside the auditorium doors was largely African-American.
Maybe it’s wrong of me to have even noticed. But what I realized in that moment is that while I simply viewed Jesse Owens as a track star who both proved Ohio State’s athletic prowess and that Hitler’s racial agenda was as laughable as it was evil, perhaps others in the line saw it differently. Maybe they thought about the days, as I did then, when we wouldn’t have been standing in the same line, walking through the same doors, living the same life, at least in this moment.
Because what’s stunning is that even though Jesse Owens is one of the greatest of Olympic Champions, and overcame illogical racial stigmas at Hitler’s Olympics, he lived his life in a racially divided America.
In 1936 Berlin, even as the games of the XI Olympiad were organized by the Nazi regime—under the premise that one race could be superior to another—the truth is, America was living the same hell.
There’s more to this story than can be recounted here, so I suggest reading Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap.
After Jesse Owens won four Olympic Gold Medals, he eventually returned to the States, meeting his wife in New York:
Ruth went to New York with Jesse’s parents to see her husband for the first time in two months—but together they spent a frustrating and humiliating night being rejected for service by hotel after hotel. Finally the Hotel Pennsylvania gave them rooms—on the condition that they use the service entrance. Even in New York, it didn’t matter whether you were the world’s greatest athlete, if you were black. (pp. 233-234).
Most of us can’t comprehend being personally treated with such malicious intent across an entire culture. For centuries now, we’ve sung about being free, recited ideals about equality. Did we ever think we were living up to, as Dr. King put it, that promissory note? Or was it all just a show, a ceremony as grand as the Olympic opening, intended to hide the darkness within?
My desire today isn’t to make us suddenly love America less, or pressure us into guilt. But it’s time we stop seeing oppression through Conservative and Liberal ideologies. It’s time to realize that generations have been horribly oppressed in the U.S., and that those wounds haven’t entirely healed—as we have seen repeatedly this summer.
When protests break out in Ferguson, or Baltimore, Baton Rouge or Minneapolis, and elsewhere, how do we respond? Do we comfort ourselves with feelings of intellectual-cultural superiority, or do we realize —arguments for the wisdom or foolishness of the protest aside—that the people of our nation have sowed these seeds of unrest and animosity for centuries? Do we realize we still haven’t achieved our highest ideals?
Jesse Owens provides a glimpse of what it looks like to overcome race, even though he faced racism at home and abroad. He shows us what a deeper knowledge of freedom can look like.
It is possible for friendship to transcend partisan divides. Jeremy Schaap recounts the friendship that formed between Owens and the German long-jumper, Luz Long who won silver (pp. 207-208; 235). Eventually, Long was compelled to serve in the Nazi military and died of wounds fighting the Allied invasion. Today though, I believe one of the chief problems in the U.S. Congress is that there are entire sections of the country that would rather other sections of the country not be represented. I think people in the southeast for example, would be happier if the northeast weren’t represented, and vice versa. We have ceased to be a functional Republic if that is the case.
Perhaps most obviously, Jesse Owens shows us a deeper knowledge of freedom by proving that it’s possible to overcome evil with good. If we see our fellow humans as fellow humans and not separate races or ideologies, we can share our humanity and find friendship. And when we do, we can compete against each other as honestly and as purely as Jesse Owens did at Hitler’s Olympics. Where evil seeks to destroy the goodness of friendship or even the diversity of the human race, we can simply prove it wrong by being the best at what we do: in policy debates, we can argue more beautifully, work with greater vision. The result of that effort will stand on its own.
The Nazis ultimately tasked Leni Riefenstahl, the creator of an earlier 1934 propaganda film, with documenting the games. The movie, of course, was intended to advance the Nazi Party, and their sick views of humanity. They hired her because “it was clear that she could be counted on to present to the world exactly what Hitler and Goebbels hoped to have presented.” (p. 141).
But the plot line of the games, and therefore their movie, was rewritten by the gold medal performances of Jesse Owens.
[Leni and her cameramen] had captured the full scope of the games with innovative technology and an artist’s eye. There was only one problem. The star of their film-in-the-making was a black American. Riefenstahl could still foresee the problems that might pose, but she pressed on, filming Jesse Owens’s every move, capturing hundreds of heroic images of him at full speed and in midair.
“What are we going to do with this man?” her chief cameraman asked her. “Goebbels will never let you release a film that celebrates him.”
“There is no choice,” she said sternly. “He is these Olympics.” (pp. 227-228).
There was of course, a costly war fought before the lies of the Nazi regime were extinguished. But for his part, Jesse Owens overcame race in one of the world’s darkest decades. Notice how Schaap concludes his book: (from page 236):
Leni Riefenstahl spent two years editing Olympia. When it was finally released, in 1938, critics hailed it as one of the greatest achievements of the cinema. Olympia remains a staple of film schools, and its technical and stylistic innovations have influenced generations of filmmakers. Riefenstahl did have to fight Goebbels to keep all her beautiful shots of Owens, who emerges from the film as the god of the games. His beauty and grace were a rebuke to the regime that Riefenstahl had done so much to glorify.
The most spectacular image of Owens in Olympia shows him making his last attempt in the broad-jump competition, the jump that stood as an Olympic record for twenty-four years…. Owens leaps up from the pit, sand clinging to his dark legs. Then he is standing facing the camera, a disembodied white arm on his shoulder. On his face there is a smile of deep satisfaction. He is serene and handsome.
Riefenstahl's message is clear: Look closely. Here is your superman.
When racial tensions break out in the United States, we can overcome through friendship. We can overcome by outperforming those who build their world on lies. Our faces don't have to mirror the fear and anger in theirs. Instead, we can work beautifully, finding deep satisfaction: LIBERATUS—we are set free.
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If you haven’t watched it already, rent the movie Race, or buy and read Triumph. How would a deeper understanding of the reality of racial tension in the U.S. change the way you are communicating in politics? How does your constituency need to be challenged to hold a more inclusive perspective?
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or by funding the movement through monthly giving or by making a purchase in our store.