James Cleveland Owens was born September 13, 1913 in Oakville (Lawrence County), Alabama to Emma Alexander and Henry Cleveland Owens. In childhood he battled what his mother referred to as “the devil’s cold”.
It was in Cleveland, Ohio where the name “Jesse” would become attached to this young man. Northerners have always had a difficult time with a heavy Southern accent and his teacher was no different. Therefore, his JC became “Jesse” for the rest of his life.
From high school he went to Ohio State University in the 1930s where he continued his work ethic since he was not given a scholarship. In addition he and his wife Ruth were not allowed to live on campus but were housed off campus with his fellow black athletes. On the road he suffered the same kind of isolation from his white classmates, even though his star athlete skills were superior.
Jesse went to the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics where he won 4 gold metals. He and 23 year-old German Carl Luz Long bonded at the games where Luz gave him some advice which resulted in Jesse in besting his German friend. Luz took the silver metal.
It is of note that Carl Luz Long, the perfect German in Adolf Hitler’s Aryan view, was not afraid to be friendly with an African-American. In fact they would correspond in the years to come. Carl Luz Long was killed in action in July 1943.
In Germany Jesse was treated like his fellow athletes. He stayed in the same hotels, ate in the same restaurants, and rode the same public transport. The German public mobbed him for his autograph and pictures.
On his return to the USA, because he was black, he had to ride the freight elevator of the Waldorf-Astoria to the ballroom gala in his honor. President Franklin Roosevelt never congratulated him or invited him to the White House as he had the white athletes. The same would be true for his successor, Harry Truman.
In 1955 he was named “Ambassador of Sports” by President Dwight Eisenhower. He traveled to Asia to represent the USA’s concern for children in that region and to spread the American way of life. In 1956 he attended the Olympic Games in Australia as President Eisenhower’s personal representative.
The Medal of Freedom was awarded him in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. “Your character, your achievement, always will be a source of inspiration.”
In 1979 he received the “Living Legend Award” from President Jimmy Carter. “A young man who possibly didn’t even realize the superb nature of his own capabilities went to the Olympics and performed in a way that I don’t believe has ever been equaled since…and since this superb achievement, he has continued in his own dedicated but modest way to inspire others to reach for greatness“.
Jesse had his ups and downs. He dealt with a lot of disappointments in his life. He worked hard and did what it took to support his family.
Being a chain smoker eventually took its toll with lung cancer and other complications. He died on March 31, 1980.
Shortly before his death he tried unsuccessfully to convince President Jimmy Carter not to boycott the Moscow Olympics. Unfortunately, the pleas of this great man fell on unsympathetic ears. Foreign policy was more important than the athletes who had trained and sacrificed as well as the good will of nations.
On March 28, 1990 President George Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to Jesse Owens. In accepting the award Ruth Owens said,
“Mr. President, thank you so very much for this honor. Like your predecessors, President Ford, President Carter, who have recognized Jesse for his many contributions, Jesse achieved the unique distinction of being a legend in his own time. Despite the many honors, his greatest satisfaction came from his work with youth. Jesse’s work with youth is now carried on through, as you mentioned, the Jesse Owens Foundation, the ARCO [Atlantic Richfield Co.] Jesse Owens Games, and the International Amateur Athletic Association, spearheaded by Herb Douglas. On behalf of the youth he still inspires, and on behalf of my family, we thank you.”
“Friendships are born on the field of athletic strife and the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.”
“We all have dreams. In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline and effort.”
What are your dreams on this July day? If you take Mr. Owens’ advice as given above, your path is clear. Embrace life and thrive.
G. D. Williams © 2012