Last Updated 27 Jan 2021

Jesse Owens: The Silent Movement

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When America typically thinks about black athletes, they think of the great ones like Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and others in that category. One athlete that is over looked is the great Jesse Owens. It might be that he did not participate in a popular sport like basketball, football or baseball, but he was an exceptionally fast on the track and overcame racial adversity. Jesse Owens impacted athletic world in a positive way throughout his life. From his time at Ohio State to the Olympics the very next year, he was a positive role model and a humble human being when he won.

Jesse Owens came from small town folks and that made him who he was during his lifetime in having a good set of core values. With the help of role models throughout Jesse Owens’s life, he showed restraint in not acting out against the racial prejudice, while still dominating the track and field world in the 1930’s. The childhood of Jesse Owens made him to be the man he was during his college career due to how little Jesse had. Owens was born on September 12, 1913 of Henry and Emma Owens in the little town of Oakville, Alabama.

Little did they know that their newborn baby would become one of the greatest track and field athletes to walk the face of the earth. Owens was a sick child and suffered from chronic bronchial congestion because his family was poor and could not properly feed everyone in the family, and they had a lack of heat in the winter. Aside from all the physical problems Owens faced, the racial prejudice that Jesse was born into took a mental toll on him. All of the poverty and destruction that Owens saw made him appreciate and become sensitive to adult success and how important that would become in his life.

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Later in life Owens would always show a smile when he won and agreed with what the newspapers said about him. Owens once said to an interviewer, “I try awfully hard for people to like me,” This shows that his childhood experiences positively reinforced his view on success and what it represents to him in life. His early years in Alabama laid the foundation for his success later in life. Young male adolescences are susceptible to a role model or mentor in their life that will immensely impact them on who they grow up to be.

Years later Owens moved on to Fairmount Junior High School where it is argued that his track career started and this is where Owens met Charles Riley. Riley was the gym teacher at Owens’s school and Jesse looked up to Riley as a father figure. People would say things about Riley being white and coaching a black teenager but neither Owens nor Riley saw race, they only saw each other as a team on the track. They began to have track practice every morning before school for an hour and by the eighth grade Jesse was participating in junior high track meets.

At first Owens’s running form was strained and he had very bad facial expressions due to lack of proper training. Riley coached him to be more fluid and that determination came from the inside of oneself and not from the public around him. This was a major turning point in the track and field career of Owens. Owens learned not to see color at an early age and Charles Riley was the main contributor to that and this shaped Owens into the man that he was. Owens was soon turning into a young man and he was making vast improvements in his speed.

Riley timed Owens in the 100 yard dash and he clocked Owens in eleven seconds flat. He did not believe what the watch was telling him so he went and found another watch and clocked Owens at the same time. This proved the fact that Riley had found a very gifted athlete that everyone was searching for and he is teaching him to become a man with values that will help him in the rest of his life. The first records that Owens set were in 1928 when he jumped six feet in the high jump and twenty two and eleven inches in the long jump.

Riley then began to tell Owens that he needed to keep training for the next four years. That was Riley’s motto, “Train for four years from next Friday”. Owens did just this and started perfecting his technique and bettering his consistency during races. The smooth, fluid form of running that is a trademark of Jesse Owens came directly from the training of Charles Riley. While Owens was progressing through his running, he was faced with racial judgment by having a white coach again. People would make judgments on how a white man could never make something out of a black man.

Owens and his coach never talked about racial issues because they did not see race, they only saw a partnership on the track. Jesse once said about Riley, “He trained me to become a man as well as an athlete…Coach Riley taught me to behave. His influence on me and many other boys kept us out of trouble. Without his guidance, we could very easily have become wards of the state. ” Charles Riley was a father figure to Owens and all that Riley taught Owens directly influenced Owens’s future in track and field in a constructive way. After Jesse’s first intercollegiate competition, he sent the watch he won to Charles Riley.

This proves that Jesse did not see race color in his coach and mentor and that Owens has grown into a man that does not forget how he got to where he was in his success. Jesse Owens’s success kept on the upward sloping curve once he entered at East Tech High School. Charles Riley became an assistant coach at East Tech High School where Jesse Owens attended. The media described Owens as “’one-man team,’ ‘a marvel,’ ‘the outstanding individual track man in northeastern Ohio. ’” In the summer coming out of his sophomore year, Owens over estimated his abilities when he tried out for the United States Olympic team.

Owens did not make it past the Midwestern preliminaries in Evanston and he then began to read about the four black athletes that did make it to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Eddie Tolan, Ralph Metcalfe, Edward Gordon, and Cornelius Johnson were the four black athletes that would pave the way to a new era for the black athlete. These four would go on to win three gold medals, one silver medal and bronze medal. This would fuel Owens to achieve what these four athletes just did in front of a world stage. After the 1932 Olympics several European athletes held track meet in Cleveland for local talent and Olympians.

This track event proved to be a boost of confidence for the young and upcoming Jesse Owens as he took first in the 100-meter and 200-meter races and placed second in the long jump to the Olympic gold medalist Edward Gordon. This meet helped Jesse in more ways than one. In Owens’s senior track season he never suffered a loss and he also set the long jump record of high school boys at 24 feet 3 and ? inches. The attention was always on Owens at track meets no matter what event he was in and took the spotlight from other racers. This was new to the world because of Owens’s skin color.

The world had never paid this much attention to a black athlete. To finish off his high school career at the national Interscholastic Championship meet, Owens won the long jump, set a new world record of 20. 7 seconds in the 220 yard dash, and tied the world record in the 100 yard dash with a time of 9. 4 seconds. East Tech High School won the meet with a total point count of fifty four and Jesse was responsible for thirty of those points. After all of Jesse Owens’s success throughout his astonishing high school career, he had a dilemma on what his next step in life would be and who would lead him on the right path.

During this time Ohio State was known for black prejudice and racial policies. This decision to attend Ohio State was debated by the press on a daily basis. Headlines read, “He will be an asset to any school, so why help advertise an institution that majors in prejudice”. Owens was not fazed by these editorials and continued on to attend Ohio State University and become the Buckeye Bullet. Charles Riley still played an important role in Jesse’s life and took Jesse to two track meets in Canada where Owens took first in the 100 meter dash.

Jesse had not lost any pace over the summer and had shown that he will only continue to get better throughout his college career. Despite all of the success by being trained by Charles Riley, Owens’s college track coach, Larry Synder, was not happy with the form at which Owens ran. Synder began tweaking all of Jesse’s movements while he ran. All of this change would not hurt Owens in the long run and Jesse would see the benefits soon in his college track career. After all of the years with Charles Riley, Owens has found another mentor to help him on his path to being man.

Synder would prove to be a great successor to Riley in Owens’s life. Owens’s college experiences concerning racial injustices would help Owens in the future when he is faced with racial problems. Back in the 1930’s the United States still faced racial injustices in parts of the country and even at Ohio State this was no different. Due to the decline in the economy in 1929, Ohio State had to cut down on staff on lack of funds. This made the teacher to student ratio too large to accommodate Owens’s needs in the classroom and this led to Jesse not receiving good grades.

Also there was a shortage of dormitories for students. The White students were assigned to the dorms; Owens had to room a half mile away from campus in an apartment with three other black athletes. This is some of the issues that Jesse had to overcome in order for him become successful. Another issue that Owens had to face was that he was not able to compete in some of the meets his freshman year due to academics and an ankle injury. At a dual meet Owens set a new Ohio State record at the long Jump and in the 120 yard sprint. Larry Synder described Owens as a golden future for Ohio State’s track future.

At the Big Ten Freshman meet in Columbus, Owens won all three events that he entered. He set new records in the 100-yard dash at 9. 6 seconds, 220-yard sprint in 21 seconds flat and a long jump distance of 24 feet and 10 inches. This success continued on to his sophomore year. In Owens’s first Big Ten varsity meet he won three out of his four events. This was a tremendous accomplishment for the young man and a rung on his ladder to success. Anyone concerned in the track and field world would never forget the day of May 25, 1935 in Ann Arbor, Michigan and neither would Jesse Owens.

On this spectacular day Owens broke three world records and tied another within the time of an hour. He broke the world records in the 220-yard sprint, 220-yard low hurdle, long jump and tied the world record in the 100-yard dash. The next day in a Cleveland news paper it read, “the 12,000 spectators were alternately stunned into silence and then moved to tremendous salvos of applause when the Buckeye ace staged his almost unbelievable show”. Despite all of the racial troubles during those times, Jesses’ old, white track coach Charles sat in the stand and cried while Owens performed that day.

This shows that people saw past color and just admired the person on the inside. Despite all of Owens’s success, his toughest times in life were just around the corner. Jesse Owens has always held his head when ever questioned about his views on racial discrimination around the world, but when the 1936 Berlin Olympics came around Owens was in no position not to say anything and finally spoke out. This is the only time that Owens ever verbally spoke against racial problems. In a short radio interview in November Jesse said, “if there is discrimination against minorities in Germany then we must withdraw from the Olympics. After all of the years of not speaking out, Owens finally spoke what he believed needed to be said. Once Larry Synder heard about this he strongly encouraged Owens to refrain from taking a side on the matter because Owens was on top of the world right now in the track and field world. The black press really dissected what Synder said to Owens and all the controversy that it brought upon Owens. The black press was then confronted by Synder and why they did not cover the story about the Sugar Bowl Meet in New Orleans.

Jesse Owens and other black athletes were not invited to the sugar bowl, but yet no one was suggesting that those games be cancelled like the Berlin games. Synder commented on the issue, “Why should we oppose Germany for doing something that we do right here at home? ” This comment by Synder really opened the eyes of the American people on the issue of discrimination in athletics. During the indoor track season Owens and his black teammates were denied admittance to restaurants. This is the real life discrimination that Owens finally faced.

During all of these challenging times for Owens, he held his head high and tried to be the best man that he could he could be. With all of these racial distractions around Owens, he still had a job and that was to continue to be as fast as he could to win the Olympics in Berlin. Despite the slow start in Owens’s junior season at Ohio State in the indoor portion, he took off in the spring due to his hard work and determination. During the season Owens ran in five consecutive meets and broke world, conference or local records in all of them. It seemed as if Owens was unstoppable and no one would be able to compete on the level that he was on.

Ten black athletes made the Olympic team for track and field and would later be called the “Black Auxiliaries”. All of these black competitors would prove to be superior over their competition at Berlin. With all of the excitement towards the Olympics and what it holds, it was still during the great depression and funding for the Olympics was not on top of the list. Most of the spending was raised by colleges and similar organizations and even exhibition events were held in Europe to ensure that the United States track and field team would be in Berlin to compete with the world’s best.

According to Owens, while on the boat ride over to Europe, senior black athletes had meeting saying that they were going to the Olympics to run and jump, not to debate politics. It did not help that during the opening ceremonies everyone in the stands rose and gave the “Heil Hitler” salute and the Nazi symbol dominated the scene as did German pride. This would not faze Owens and he kept concentrated on his goal of winning multiple gold medals. Owens would show his displeasure with the Hitler’s views of Aryan race superiority by winning four gold medals.

Jesse Owens had become an amazing man in his talents on the track and the way he presents himself off the track as well in not acting out to the race problems at college. These traits would be seen throughout the Olympics. To prepare for the Olympics, Herr Hitler made the grounds as beautiful as it was possible. He spent great amounts of money to upgrade the image of Germany during the time the games were held. The political controversy started on the first day of the games with Hitler shaking hands with two German gold medalists and the Finish team that finished first, second, and third.

But When Owens’s teammate Cornelius Johnson won the high jump Hitler was nowhere to be found. Did Herr Hitler leave because Johnson just proved his Nordic supremacy and Aryan aristocracy theory wrong? Many feel this is the case, but according to officials Herr Hitler was scheduled to leave at the time he did. When Cornelius saw that Herr Hitler was leaving he just smiled and grinned as the first day of the track and field came to a close. The feature event for the track and field competition was hands down the 100-meter and Owens was in no mood to disappoint the crowd.

In the semi-finals for the 100-meter Owens broke the world record with a time of 10. 2 seconds but was soon dismissed due to a back wind. To put a nail in the coffin for Herr Hitler’s Aryan views, two African Americans took first and second in the 100-meter sprint. It was Owens who won first and Metcalfe who took second. This would be the first of four gold medals for the young Jesse Owens. The day after is now known as Black Tuesday due the qualify heats that Owens and two other African American teammates dominated. Owens usually excelled at the long jump, but he cut it very close in his qualifying.

He scratched his first two attempts to qualify for the finals. On his final qualifying attempt he soared to an astonishing twenty six feet. It was the first time that anyone had ever jumped twenty six feet. Owens was used to breaking records and just looked to improve on his next jumps. On Owens’s last and final jump he cleared an unheard of distance of twenty-six feet and five inches. This broke both the Olympic and World records. An Olympic record had been broken twice in one day by an African American and Hitler could not do anything to stop it.

The World is finally seeing what African American athletes are capable of. Jesse easily won his third Gold medal in the 200-meter sprint with a world record time of 20. 7 seconds. He won the crowd over with his third medal, but he would never win over Herr Hitler. The fourth and final Medal for Owens would come on the 400-meter relay team. Normally Owens did not this event, but due to an injury on the team Jesse was nominated by his teammates to run and that is exactly what Jesse did. The American team Soared to victory over the other competitors.

The “Black Auxiliaries” were running away with most of the medals for the United States track and field team with six out of ten medals. This Olympics would go down in history for political reasons concerning the Aryan race and for the records Owens broke. Owens had overcome much adversary in his life and the Olympics were what he strived for his whole life. Jesse Owens is one of America’s greatest athletes and will always be remembered for his triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics winning four Gold Medals.

Owens did not have the easiest road to his success because of political, legal and health problems, but he fought through them with prosperity. His various role models in life including Charles Riley, Ralf Metcalfe and Larry Snyder helped Owens overcome the racial injustices of the time and molded Owens in to the great runner he was. Owens later in life died in March of 1980 due to lung Cancer. From the small town in Alabama, to the great Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, Jesse Owens was an amazing athlete and just as amazing individual.

Jesse Owens: The Silent Movement essay

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