Brandon Pope: This episode includes references to Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Jesse Owens wasn't even a teenager when he learned he had an incredible gift: speed. In high school, he equaled the world record in the 100 yard dash. In college he set four world records in the span of 45 minutes. Then, at the 1936 Olympics, he won four gold medals in front of Adolf Hitler. Dispelling the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy. From WBEZ Chicago, this is Making Jesse Owens. I'm Brandon Pope. Today, how Jesse Owens became the world's greatest athlete. Joining us is journalist and NBC News contributor, Cecil Harris.
Cecil Harris: Jesse Owens is still the yardstick by which all other track and field athletes are judged.
Brandon Pope: Jesse Owens daughter, the co founder of the Jesse Owens Foundation, Marlene Rankin.
Marlene Rankin: He trusted a lot of people. And a lot of times he got burned.
Brandon Pope: Jesse's son in law and former business partner Stuart Rankin.
Stuart Rankin: He killed people with kindness and that's something that a lot of us have tried to live by.
Brandon Pope: And the author of "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics," ESPN reporter, Jeremy Schaap.
Jeremy Schaap: A man who's a second class citizen at home, going over to Hitler's Germany, doing what he did under that kind of pressure embodies true greatness.
Brandon Pope: Today, on Making.
Brandon Pope: James Cleveland Owens was the youngest of ten children, the son of a sharecropper. When he was nine, the Owens family took part in the Great Migration. They moved from Oakville, Alabama, to Cleveland, Ohio. When he told his new teacher his name was J.C. - his initials, she heard Jesse and it stuck. It was also here at his middle school in Ohio, that a track coach named Charles Riley first saw something in young Jesse. He was fast. Riley invited him to join the track team. Jesse accepted. He timed him in the 100 yard dash. And Jesse finished in just 11 seconds flat, making him one of the fastest runners in the world. He was just 15 years old.
Alright Marlene, let's start the conversation with you. Can you give us some insight into those early years of your father's childhood? What was life like for him in Alabama?
Marlene Rankin: It was tough. He did pick cotton and did pick 100 pounds a day at a very early age. So he was very accustomed to hard work. The one thing that he could enjoy was running. And he talked about just running through the fields where you had this sense of freedom, and that you could go as fast as you wanted, as slow as you wanted, with the wind only as your competition.
Brandon Pope: Yeah. You describe, he saw running a sort of an escape, right? As freedom. What was it about it that he found as a refuge?
Marlene Rankin: I guess the fact that he could do it. He was not a well young man. He had frequent bouts with pneumonia. It was that sense of freedom that kept him running.
Brandon Pope: You know, Jeremy, there's a story you write about in your book about Jesse, a story that's a part of Jesse Owens’ mythology. He found a lump on his chest when he was five years old, can you tell us about that?
Jeremy Schaap: I think it was the day after he turned five years old. When they decide to remove this lump, they didn't have money for a doctor. There had been something previously similar on his leg that his mother had extracted. And now it seemed clear to her this was interfering with young J.C., as he was called, his breathing, that it would have to be removed and that she would have to do it herself. And of course, this was very frightening for the family. But Emma Owens took it upon herself to remove this, what was probably a fibrous tumor, and what was especially frightening after she removed it, it was bigger than she thought it was going to be, it just continued to bleed for several days.
Jesse Owens later in life talked about how weak he remembers feeling at that time. This was something, the post operative part of it very easily could have killed him. And he remembers hearing his father praying for him outside where they lived. Words to the effect of - please God, spare my son, because if he doesn't live, it will kill his mother, and we won't survive without his mother. And then the bleeding stopped. But for Jesse, this is one of those formational stories from his youth, foundational. And I think the message essentially, and Marlene and Stuart would know better than I, is that surviving such a thing as a five year old, gave everyone a sense of Jesse's specialness.
Brandon Pope: Jeremy, what can you tell us about Coach Riley?
Jeremy Schaap: Well, Coach Riley was someone who saw this gift in Jesse Owens on the school playground and wanted to nurture it. And that bond, I think the importance of it, in the development of Jesse Owens from a very young age into a world class track and field athlete can't be overstated.
Brandon Pope: Cecil, so let's bring you in.
Cecil Harris: Jesse Owens had said that, basically, Mr. Reilly was the first white person who took that kind of interest in him. And it helped shape his feeling that oh, there are decent, white people in the world, they're not all against us. Basically, I'm getting this opportunity and I'm going to make the most of this opportunity. And the track, it's sort of a meritocracy basically. If you are the best, you prove your superiority on the track, people may not like you because of what you look like but that's their problem. Jesse Owens had a special gift. And once he was on the track that became his outlet to show the world how special he is.
Brandon Pope: Chicago was the host for the national high school track championship in the year 1933. It was here where Jesse Owens first made national news. The New York Times headline read "World Mark in 100 Tied by Schoolboy." Jesse, a high school senior had matched the world's fastest 100 yard dash time. Many colleges immediately began recruiting Jesse, and he chose the Ohio State University. There he faced stiff competition, but also racism and segregation. Jesse was forced to live off campus with other Black athletes. When he traveled with the team, he could only eat at Blacks only restaurants. OSU did an offer track scholarships, so the fastest man in the world worked part time jobs to pay for school. Nevertheless, Jesse made history on May 25, 1935 in what's been called the greatest 45 minutes in sports. At the Big 10 meet in Ann Arbor, Jesse set world records in three events and equaled the world record in one more, all in under an hour. His long jump record of 26 feet eight and one quarter inches wasn't broken for 25 more years. In track and field, that is an eternity.
You know, it's really amazing to hear those numbers and see that rise. Now before we talk about this Big 10 meet, Cecil Harris, can you tell us about his experience at Ohio State in the context of being an African American at a university that was still very much segregated?
Cecil Harris: Well, unfortunately, that's what many Black athletes, Black students had to face in that era. And what set Jesse Owens apart is what I think set a lot of Black achievers apart at that time. You keep your eyes on the prize, so to speak, you focus on your goals. Yes, you are being discriminated against on a daily basis. Yes, it's unfair. But Jesse Owens had a larger purpose in mind, he wanted to basically show his talent to the world. And his achievements were so extraordinary that the every day racism, the systemic racism that he faced was not enough to stop him.
Brandon Pope: Yeah, it's hard to even fathom in 2022, what he went through at Ohio State back in his day. Marlene and Stuart, do you have any insights into how Jesse dealt with that, at his time at Ohio State?
Marlene Rankin: As Cecil said, he always was looking ahead and not behind. It was tough. And I think he learned so much from Pop Riley, that helped him get through those times. He learned how to deal with white people, which he had not had experience with before. And he learned how to appreciate his God given talent, and to keep focusing forward. So I really think that that's how he got through it. Not only that, but through life in general.
Stuart Rankin: What I could add to that, basically, is that when he was in school, Blacks weren't allowed to stay in the dorms at Ohio State. And I think his attitude was, I don't think they had this term when he was coming along, but his attitude was, it is what it is, and you deal with it the best you can you don't let it get you down. He made everybody his friend. He killed people with kindness, and that's something that a lot of us have tried to live by.
Brandon Pope: It takes an incredible amount of mental fortitude, and strength and resiliency to you know, keep that that positive attitude and outlook despite hatred coming your way. Jeremy, let's talk about Jesse's big 10 championship. A few days prior to this record breaking meet, Owens injured himself pretty badly. His coach almost pulled him out of competition. What happened there?
Jeremy Schaap: He was horsing around with his fraternity brothers at Ohio State. And he fell down a flight of stairs, I think at the fraternity house, and he hurt his back very badly. You know, the big meet was coming up, he had just had a great performance at Northwestern. And now they were going to the conference championships in Ann Arbor at Ferry Field. And it looked like he wouldn't even be able to compete. He was still in a great amount of pain and right up until those fateful 45 minutes or so, he set all those records, you know, there were questions about whether he should compete whether he might do some permanent damage.
Brandon Pope: Yeah. Cecil, let's put into context how incredible this feat was.
Cecil Harris: He was gifted with amazing talent, and he had to have also had a strong will to not think about the back injury just go out to do what he needed to do on the track in the long jump. And nowadays, Brandon, if someone sets a record in the 100, that's a major accomplishment. In the 200, a major accomplishment. In the long jump, a major accomplishment. If you're part of a world record setting relay team, a major accomplishment. Jesse Owens was part of all four. And it's just extraordinary what he was able to accomplish. And he emerged as the major track and field star at that time.
Jeremy Schaap: In the moment, you got to remember for context to how important track and field was at the time. You know, track and field today just isn't as important to the average American, to the average American sports fan. At this time track and field was huge. It was so big the biggest track stars were household figures. And what he did in that less than an hour period of time, I think is the greatest athletic feat of all time. You know, I'm far from alone. And it immediately made him a superstar. You know, track people already knew who he was. He was a big deal when he went to Ohio State, he had set records in the interscholastic meets when he was in high school. But what he did on May 25, 1935, elevated him above every other track and field athlete in the world. And it was just 15 months before the Berlin Olympics. And so all of a sudden, he became the focus of so much attention.
Brandon Pope: They've been called the Nazi Olympics. Berlin, 1936. Thousands of spectators give a stiff arm salute in Hitler's presence. Mass genocide was years away, but the Nazi campaign of social, political and legal persecution of Jews was well underway. And on the international stage, Hitler was eager to promote his myth of Aryan supremacy. Enter Jesse Owens. Owens won the 100 meter dash, then the long jump, then the 200 meter. And finally, a 4 by 100 meter relay. And he won the support of the German crowd as well.
Now, Jeremy, there was some hesitation as to whether Jesse should have even gone to Berlin and participate in the games. He did eventually go. But how was that decision made? Was it his decision ultimately?
Jeremy Schaap: Well, what happened was there was a strong boycott movement in the United States, a boycott movement led by Jeremiah T. Mahoney, who was the head of the Amateur Athletic Union. And he was at loggerheads with the head of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, who wanted U.S. to go wanted the United States to compete, not only in Berlin, but in the Winter Olympics as well, which were taking place earlier in the year in Germany. And so there was this vote, ultimately, in late 1935, between those who wanted the U.S. to boycott the games and those who wanted the U.S. to go. And by the slimmest of margins, the Amateur Athletic Union Representatives voted to participate in the games.
Now, of course, you know, any individual athlete could have chosen not to, but that would have been an extraordinary and unusual decision. And at the time, there were those who said, individual athletes should make the decision not to go, not to show up in Hitler's Berlin and take part. There were such asks made specifically of African American athletes who were going to the Olympics, and, you know, quite reasonably, a number of African American athletes who were going to compete in Berlin said, wait, you're asking us not to go there because of what's going on in Germany. And here in the U.S. were second class citizens? And ultimately, of course, by going, Jesse Owens was putting himself in a position to refute Nazi hatred and racism. And you know, it is a fair question to ask. So, you know, if the boycott succeeds, then the world doesn't know who Jesse Owens is today, because there were no Olympics in 1940. There were no Olympics in 1944, of course, because of the Second World War, he would have been too old to compete in 1948. And so it's complicated, but the U.S. almost did not go.
Brandon Pope: And, and I appreciate you, Jeremy, bringing up you know, the sentiment from some people in the Black community that hey, you know, we're facing discrimination here. Why single out Germany in particular? Now, Cecil it's obvious how evil Hitler was at the time, and history has well documented that, but perhaps it wasn't as obvious in 1936. So can you explain the political backdrop at this time?
Cecil Harris: Well, it's somewhat similar to the 1968 Black led boycott of the Olympics in Mexico City in that people weren't saying don't go to Mexico because of Mexico's policies, but don't go to the Olympics because of America's enduring shame of racism here. And many great athletes like Lew Alcindor, later, Kareem Abdul Jabbar did not go to the 1968 Olympics. But back to 1936, Nazism was on the rise and basically, he had a stranglehold on the country, ideologically, and he had fed them the myth of Aryan superiority and people were buying into it. So it was seen as a way of not giving Hitler a platform but he would have had that platform anyway. The Olympics were in Germany. He was in the stadium watching the track and field events every day. So Jesse was the star and he single handedly made a major political statement without verbalizing it, just doing what he did on the track. He made a major political statement.
Brandon Pope: More Making Jesse Owens in a minute.
Brandon Pope: Let's talk about Jesse Owens winning gold in the long jump. After his record setting long jump, he was immediately congratulated by his main rival German long jumper Luz Long. Jeremy, can you tell us about Jesse's relationship with Luz Long.
Jeremy Schaap: Well this is one of those great stories, right? When you think about Jesse Owens and those achievements, the four gold medals in Berlin at the games of the 11th Olympiad. In those circumstances against that backdrop of an ascendant Nazi Germany. Swastikas and you know, the militarism. There are also these human stories, right? And that's why I think the legend of Jesse Owens is still so powerful. And when you talk about, you know, the great moments in sportsmanship, something that transcends the competition itself, you think about his relationship with Luz Long which you know, lasts over the course of a few days, but they're competing against each other in the long jump. And then when Jesse wins, you know, Luz Long and Jesse are hand in hand arm in arm walking around the stadium in front of this massive crowd.
This is a competition in which there's already been a huge amount of controversy about Adolf Hitler snubbing African American athletes. This is already a games in which the German press, the Nazi press, is insulting and diminishing the accomplishments of African American track and field stars. And here, you know, are Jesse Owens, an African American and Luz Long, this kind of a model of Aryan manhood, arm in arm hand in hand. And Luz Long died during the war. He died as a German soldier. But Jesse Owens talked about, for the rest of his life, how important that relationship they formed in those moments during the long jump was for him.
Jesse Owens: I've experienced many moments in the sun. But perhaps the most rewarding was to have Luz Long beside me on the winners platform.
Brandon Pope: That right there is the voice of Jesse Owens speaking about let's long in a documentary that was called Jesse Owens returns to Berlin. Now, as Jeremy said, Luz Long was killed in action, fighting for Germany during the war. But Jesse remembered the relationship really for the rest of his life? He went back to Berlin a few years later to meet with Long's son. Now, Marlene, can you tell us what happened there?
Marlene Rankin: He had promised Luz that he would go back and meet his son and tell him what kind of person his father was. And he did. He did go back and spend time with him and spend time with the family. And that relationship continues.
Brandon Pope: Now Jeremy made reference to a story about Hitler snubbing some athletes, particularly the non Aryan athletes, and this snubbing story was published in a lot of newspapers at the time. So I'm gonna actually quote the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which said that, in fact, during the very first day of a Olympic competition, when Owens did not compete, Olympic protocol officers implored Hitler to receive either all the medal winners or none, and Hitler chose the latter. Whether he did this to avoid shaking hands with non Aryans is unclear. And that's the end of the quote there. Now, what we do know is that Hitler did not shake Jesse's hand. Now, what I find interesting is that a month after the games, Jesse was saying that the person he actually felt snubbed by was President Franklin Roosevelt. And in fact, only white American athletes were invited to the White House after the Olympic Games. Marlene, how did your father feel about that?
Marlene Rankin: It was one of the things that really hurt him. Not everything got to him, but I think that did. But during the Obama administration, he invited the descendants of all the Black athletes of the 1936 Olympics to the White House.
Brandon Pope: What was that moment like? Did you - were you able to go?
Marlene Rankin: Oh, yes, yes. My sister Beverly and I were there.
Brandon Pope: What was that moment like?
Marlene Rankin: It was incredible. It was just a very warm and exciting at the same time, time.
Brandon Pope: You know, Jeremy, this kind of speaks to something you referenced earlier about how, you know, when people were talking about boycotting, and Black Americans were talking about boycotting, they were saying, well, we get, you know, bad treatment here in America too. And this snubbing in a sense by Roosevelt kind of spoke to that. Can you tell us a little bit more about that dynamic in the United States?
Jeremy Schaap: Okay, you know, you get choked up when you think about what Jesse Owens did in Berlin, right? It's now almost 90 years later, it's still the greatest feat ever in the Olympics. Greatest feat ever in sports, you could say, you know, a man who's a second class citizen at home, son of a sharecropper, grandson of slaves, going over to Hitler's Germany, where he's officially, you know, it wasn't just Jews, it was also anti Black. You know, where he's officially something less than a human being, doing what he did under that kind of pressure. With those crowds around him, with the stakes so high, not only the stakes for the cause of progress, the stakes for him personally, knowing when he came home, that, you know, his family, he and his family wouldn't be able to walk through the main entrance at the hotel in New York, after they got off the ship that brought them home.
You know, so Jesse Owens, had to deal with so much. And he rose to the occasion in a way that embodies true greatness. And, and he's such an important figure beyond sports. He is such an important figure in the cause of civil rights. He was really in some ways the first African American sports star, you know. Remember in 1936, baseball is segregated. The National Football League is segregated. There is no pro basketball league the way that you know, there would be by the late 40s, there is no NBA or its forerunner. You know, so much of college sports are segregated. And this is also important. Remember, this is just - what Jesse Owens achieves in Berlin comes just a few weeks after a massive disappointment for African Americans when Joe Lewis is knocked out by Max Schmeling. Joe Lewis, up until June 19, 1936, is a bigger star than Jesse Owens, because he is expected to be the next great heavyweight champion.
And so all the context of Jesse Owens and his triumphs, there are all the stakes. And he fashions the greatest performance ever. It's - I remember talking to Michael Phelps about this, right, after he won his eighth gold medal in Beijing. You know, it's one thing to be great enough to do it. It's an entirely different thing to do it. And he did it. And he did it under so much pressure, so far from home, you know, and then two days later, you know, the Amateur Athletic Union, you know, puts them on a plane to fly around Europe to make money for the AAU, they don't so much is give them $20, the athletes, to buy sandwiches. This is what they were dealing with, amateurs at that time.
Brandon Pope: Beautiful context there Jeremy. Cecil, can you expand on what Jeremy just said there about how Jesse was received when he returned to the United States?
Cecil Harris: Again, subjected to the kind of systemic racism that all Black Americans faced at the time and because he was a legendary athlete returning home from Berlin after a legendary accomplishment that did not change the way white America perceived him or treated him. That's the disgrace. Well, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not acknowledge him, the White House did not acknowledge him. Second class treatment continued. In the past when athletes did something extraordinary at the Olympics, I'm thinking of say a Johnny Weissmuller, or Buster Crabbe who are Olympic swimming stars, they became B level movie stars: playing Tarzan. Sonya Haney a figure skater became a film star after her Olympic success. Jesse Owens was not afforded any of those opportunities in America despite his brilliance on the track. Despite his humanity, despite his decency as a man, he was not treated with the special treatment he deserved. Instead, he ends up having to race horses to make money. And it never should have come to that. No other Olympic champion had to do something that would be considered humiliating to make a living. And it just basically showed America's contempt at the time for Black people, and that's really the infuriating part of the post Olympic life for Jesse Owens as I researched it, America did not embrace him.
Brandon Pope: Yeah, after his own ticker tape parade he had to take the back elevator of the Waldorf Astoria to attend his own party. Like you talk about disrespect.
Cecil Harris: It's like the ticker tape right was for them. Not for him.
Brandon Pope: Yeah, egregious. Well, let's dive deeper into to the aftermath of Jesse Owens at the Olympics. You know, after the 1936 Olympics, he sought out sponsorship deals which stripped him of his amateur status and effectively ended his career in athletics. He took a job as a playground instructor for underprivileged youth in Cleveland. He earned $30 a week. Later, he became a part owner in a dry cleaning business. Marlene, I do want to ask you about this time, you know, you grew up with a father, who was just a legend, and he became a legend before you were born. But while you grew up with him, he was struggling. He didn't win lucrative sponsorships we see other athletes get today. Can you tell us about the relationship he had with his own past? While you were growing up? You talk about how he doesn't really talk about a lot of things there. Why do you think that is?
Marlene Rankin: Because he was too busy trying to move forward. He didn't dwell on the past, he was always forward moving, and finding another way to take care of his family. Through that process. We never realized how difficult life was for him, trying to provide for the family. There were a lot of things that failed. He trusted a lot of people, he was the kind of person who really did not see the evil in other people. And so he would trust. And a lot of times he got burned. And he finally, finally learned some lessons, and was able to become successful. But we were always comfortable, because he saw to it that we were
Brandon Pope: Alright, Cecil, interesting question here for you. But if Jesse Owens would have been around, let's say in a different time, if he had won four gold medals, like in Tokyo, the recent Olympics, what would the Jesse Owens story have been?
Cecil Harris: I think Jesse Owens would be looked upon as a phenomenal athlete. Basically, he would never have to work again, the offers would come flooding in from all spheres. Basically, he would be able to do whatever he wanted to do for the rest of his life because he would be so celebrated. He was the biggest star in the most celebrated sport at the time. But racism is such a stain on society. It basically prevented him from being properly respected and acknowledged in his own country. There's no way the President of the United States today would snub anyone who accomplished what Jesse Owens accomplished, but it happened. There's no way you would ask him or her to take the service entrance to a banquet that is in your honor. That, that - those things would never happen.
Brandon Pope: Marlene, Stuart, we're going to end here with the both of you. What does Jesse Owens mean to people today from your perspective?
Stuart Rankin: [Laughs] I think basically, young people still idolize him. Marlene still gets a lot of mail from kids who want information about her father so they can write a paper. And I'm not talking about college students or high school students. These are elementary school kids, eight or nine years old from Washington, Alaska. You name it, from all over the country who write an email for information about Jesse Owens, and he's still held in high esteem and his personality and his character is what keeps that going.
Brandon Pope: Marlene?
Marlene Rankin: He was an outstanding and famous athlete. He was a person of fine character. He was Daddy.
Brandon Pope: Well, thank you all for your contribution today. This has been making Jesse Owens, I want to thank each of our guests for being here. Jeremy Schaap, Marlene Rankin, Stuart Rankin, and Cecil Harris thank you again, all of you.
Marlene and Stuart Rankin: Thank you.
Cecil Harris: Thank you.
Jeremy Schaap: Thank you.
Brandon Pope: And a final word from Jesse Owens.
Jesse Owens: Let it be said that we lost no sleep over not being greeted by Adolf Hitler.
Brandon Pope: This episode of Making was produced by Justin Bull and Heena Srivastava. I'm your host, Brandon Pope. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Special thanks this week to the Jesse Owens Foundation for their contributions to this episode. Be sure to also check out “Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics” by Jeremy Schaap. Also, our man Cecil Harris has a great podcast about one of our Making subjects, check out “All American: Venus & Serena.” And a big thanks to you for listening. Be sure to press the subscribe button if you haven't already, and we'll see you next week.
WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.