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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 242

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This is the grave of Jesse Owens.

Arguably the greatest track star of all time and certainly the most historically important, Owens was born in 1913 to Alabama sharecroppers. In 1922, following so many other rural southern African-Americans, his family moved north, to Cleveland. Of course, his amazing speed was discovered early and by the time he was in high school, he was breaking records. That continued at Ohio State, although it only happened because his impoverished father found employment after a long dry spell, meaning that Owens didn’t have to work to support the family. He set record after record and dealt with racial segregation all the time on the road and of course plenty of racism in Ohio as well.

By 1935, it was clear that Owens was the top American sprinter. The 1936 Olympics were to be held in Berlin. Hitler was going to make them a showcase for his white supremacist ideology. What should black athletes do? The NAACP’s Walter White urged Owens and other black athletes to call for a boycott. Owens did in fact join that, but the US Olympic Committee began demonizing the athletes as un-American and it caused them to cave. So Owens went to Berlin. And he utterly dominated, rubbing it in Hitler’s racist face. He won 4 gold medals, in the 100, 200, long jump, and 4×100 relay. The next person to win 4 golds in track? Carl Lewis, in 1984.

Owens was very angry in the aftermath–not at Hitler, but rather at Franklin Roosevelt because the president didn’t even send him a telegram. Furious, this now very famous athlete became a Republican, endorsing and giving speeches for Alf Landon. Owens also received a lot of endorsement offers, unprecedented for black athletes. But then he was declared no longer an amateur athlete, because as we all know from the NCAA, defining athletes by your random definition of amateurism leads to no problems at all. So his career was over. But without being able to compete, the offers disappeared too. Owens had no career and no way to make money in a racist society that ground black people into abject poverty. He worked for awhile as a gas station attendant and as a janitor on a playground. Yep, that’s racism in a nutshell. A friend got him a good administrative job at Ford that lasted for a few years, but he was poor for most of the rest of his life. Owens became a heavy smoker and that’s what did him in. He died of lung cancer in 1980. His last major act was trying to convince Jimmy Carter to call off the Olympic boycott.

Here’s a couple of clips of Owens in 1936:

Jesse Owens is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to cover more of our great track stars, you can donate to help cover the considerable expenses of traveling around here. Wilma Rudolph is buried in Clarksville, Tennessee and Florence Griffith-Joyner in Lake Forest, California. Hard to believe that she died at 38. Anyway, previous posts in this series are archived here.

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