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The Jesse Owens They Don’t Teach You about in History Class

The world’s top athletes in 1936 wrestled with a moral conundrum: “Should I compete in the Olympics or make a statement and refuse to go?” The site of the games was Hitler’s Berlin. Though World War II was three years’ off, it was obvious to all but incorrigible appeasers that the Nazi regime was a racist, anti-Semitic, violent, and dictatorial regime.

Eighty-six years later, many athletes must have asked themselves the same question before this month’s competitions in Beijing. The Chinese kleptocracy under Xi Jinping has crushed freedom in Hong Kong, threatened Taiwan, and brutally persecuted the country’s Uighur minority. Compelling evidence exists suggesting the regime, whether by accident or intent, unleashed a deadly virus on the world from a government lab in Wuhan. With good reason, the courageous Boston Celtics basketball star Enes Kanter Freedom calls the Beijing spectacle “the Genocide Games.”

Personally, I chose to boycott the Olympics by shunning both the television coverage and the products of the sponsors. But I do not fault every athlete who decided to participate, only those who might return home afterwards and never condemn the crimes of the Chinese government or express sympathy for its victims.

One of the heroes of the 1936 Berlin games, the great Jesse Owens, understood what the most important things in life are. To Jesse, they were matters of the conscience and of the soul.

“The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals,” he wrote in his 1970 book, Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man. “The struggles within yourself—the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us—that’s where it’s at. Life is the real Olympics.”

Owens’ decision to compete in Berlin drew fire at the time from fellow blacks at the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He went anyway. In hindsight, decent people everywhere ought to be glad he did. By winning four gold medals as Hitler watched from the stands, Jesse impressively undermined the fiction of Aryan racial superiority.

Jesse Owens was a remarkable American. He pulled himself up from very humble beginnings and overcame prejudice. He proved himself to be not only a fantastic athlete but a truly admirable and forgiving man of solid character. The spirit of Black History Month is not well-served if we focus only on speech-making activists and ignore the contributions of the achievers like Owens.

You can learn why I regard Owens as a “Real Hero” in this chapter from my book by that very title. You’ll discover that a snub more disgraceful than anything Hitler could have done was “progressive” Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to invite only the white American Olympians to the White House and keep Jesse out.

Jesse Owens left the ideological plantation early in life and never went back. He always thought for himself. Freedom to him never meant slavish adherence to whatever white liberals or race hustlers of any color told him he should think because he was black. He resisted what he disparaged as “blackthink,” the idea that all blacks should think alike and spend their days in bitter resentment. He was a rugged individualist, not a collectivist fool. He loved America and never condemned the nation for the sins of a few. He never wallowed in victimology. He lived his life according to the Golden Rule.

Owens was born in Alabama in 1913 and died in 1980 at the age of 66. His name is still widely recognized but mostly for what he did in 1936, and not much for what he ever said. That’s unfortunate because Jesse said and wrote many things that deserve attention today. From the book he authored over a half-century ago, Blackthink, I offer this selection of Jesse Owens’s observations on life:


“I’m no scholar in history but I don’t think you have to be a PhD to see the striking, disgusting similarity between all forms of tyranny. Suppressing the personal identity of the individual into some group, the end justifying the means, force instead of freedom. These are what make every despot and potential despot tick, whether it be a Hitler, a George Lincoln Rockwell, a KKK’er, or a black militant…I’ve seen the despotism of the spirit drive out almost everything else good in a man, day after day, sometimes hour by hour, until he’s a fanatic wooden stereotype.”


“Each man has a right, a responsibility, to defend his own life. Freedom is unfortunately sometimes the freedom to use violence—only after you’ve first been attacked in some way. But prejudice isn’t violence. I’m not saying bigotry isn’t rotten. But the line between the man who pulls a gun on me and the bigot who pulls a prejudice on me is a thick line. And if we handle them both the same way, we’re trading liberty for the jungle. The man who thinks Negroes are inferior and won’t have anything to do with them is stupid, maybe sick. But in the United States he has the right to be those things as long as he doesn’t back up his ideas as the KKK or the blackthinkers have—with fists and fires and ropes.”


“What in the hell is liberty if you make everyone else think the way you do? The blackthinkers, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately, are trying to take away that liberty. They don’t educate, they don’t persuade. Their ‘dialogues’ are usually a hoax.”


“Fifty-seven years on this earth have shown me that men aren’t basically evil. But they aren’t basically good either. The possibilities for both are always in us, and just because we did the right thing on Tuesday and Wednesday doesn’t mean we’re sure to do it on Friday and Saturday. You can’t rest on your laurels where character is concerned, just as you can’t stop breathing and expect to live simply because you’ve drawn fifty million breaths before that. Humanity isn’t something you’re given. It isn’t a natural state of being. You earn it. You’ve got to work to be human.”


“When the chips are really down, you can either put your skin first or you can go with what’s inside it…Remember that prejudice isn’t new. It goes way back, just as slavery goes way back, to before there ever was an America. Men have always had to meet insanity without losing their own minds. That doesn’t mean you should stand still for bigotry. Fight it. Fight it for all you’re worth. But fight your own prejudice, too. Don’t expect perfection in your white brother until there’s not an ounce of blackthink left in you. And remember that the hardest thing for all of us isn’t to fight, but to stop and think.”

For Additional Information, See:

Jesse Owens: “Character Makes the Difference When It’s Close” by Lawrence W. Reed

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics, 1936 (video)

The Crazy Real-Life Story of Jesse Owens (video)

Jesse Owens: One of the Greatest Olympians Ever (video)

Jesse Owens: A Rare Interview (video)

Jesse Owens In the Lion’s Den (video)

Blackthink: My Life as Black Man and White Man by Jesse Owens

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schaap

Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.

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