Jesse Owens is recognizable to a lot of people. The story of his life is worth retelling over and over again. His passion, his work ethic, his resilience and endurance both on the track and off is a story for everyone to know. He became so important for his entire generation of America. He represented the struggle and victory over oppression. Both abroad in Europe at the time, and later with the civil rights movement that would follow in the years to come.
His economic and racial restraints are obvious but one can only fully understand him through putting yourself in his shoes, seeing through his eyes his challenges, obstacles, and victories. For Owens, and many others, racing was a way out of these limitations that were placed on him. They would define him and influence his decisions and his ability to navigate through an unfair time in history. (Baker, xi)
His accomplishments would include setting the national high school records in the 100-yd, 200-yd dash, and long jump; Attending Ohio State University; breaking 3 world records at the Big Ten Conference in 1935 in the long jump, 220-yd dash and 220-yd hurdles all within 45 min; Winning all 42 events he competed in his jr. year at Ohio State; at the Olympics in Berlin 1936 he became the first American to win 4 gold medals in a single Olympics, he won the 100 meter dash, long jump, 200 mether dash, and 400 meter relay. (Forbes)
Beyond the track Jesse would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald R. Ford and the Congressional Gold Medal by President George H.W. Bush. (About, Jesse Owens)
His name would be synonymous with athletic perfection. A body made for breaking records at 5'10" and 165 pounds. But what he embodied and proved to the world was that individual excellence takes you above any race or national origin. (Baker, 1)
He is most remembered for how he did this in the 1936 Berlin Olympics at the height of Adolf Hitlers Nazi Germany. Hitler would dazzle the world with its olympic facilities, prestige and grandness as an effort to show the world the superiority of the master Arian race. Who non other than Jesse Owens to blow this idea out of the water on their own turf.
Jesse was born in Oakville Alabama in 1913, the youngest of 10 kids and a surprise child of his parents Henry and Emma. He was born into a complicated northern Alabama, rasisim and the unfair accusations of black men as the committers of numerous crimes were convicted and sentences often with little or no evidence and with no legal assistance. (Baker, 7)
Their life in the sharecropping business was further complicated by whites who where just as poor pushing them to severe racism in order to compensate an upper hand over the black community. It was their only means of differentiating between themselves and the black community. (Baker, 8)
When Jesse was a child they moved north to Cleveland Ohio in search of better work and to escape the relentless segregation of the south. This move north was not unheard of for black families of the south. The "Great Migration" was in full effect of 4.5 million southerners making the move northwards for the job opportunities and racial equality. The racial equality in the north at the time was not perfect but it was leaps above that of the south. Out of the great migration you get great developments in culture. Blacks from the south brought jazz music to the north that would morph from ragtime, to Dixieland, to Big Band and then to rock and roll.
(The history of music in the United States is fascinating if you ever get the chance to check it out!)
Anyways, back on topic...It is in Ohio that Jesse the legend started to grow. At Fairmount Junior High School, Jesse's track coach Charles Riley influenced Owens love for running greatly. Riley would be an encouragement for the rest of Owens life through all of his success. By high school Owens was breaking state records and tying national records in the 100-yd dash and the long jump.
By college at Ohio State he was breaking world records and setting pace for the Olympics.
Following the 1936 Olympics Owens life had its ups and downs. He had small stints as an athletic broadcaster, entertainer, gas station attendant, and owner of a small basket ball team. Throughout his life he worked hard, never gave up, and refused to be pushed around because of his race.