- Owens, Jesse (James)
- (1913-1980)The African American champion athlete was born James Owens in Alabama, but his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was young. After studying at a local high school, he went to Ohio State University, where he quickly excelled in track and field. Having just missed qualifying for the 1932 Olympics, he set three new world records and equaled another in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. There, in front of the German leader Adolf Hitler, Owens shattered the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy when he won four gold medals, breaking Olympic records in the 100-meter race, 200-meter race, long jump, and the 400-meter relay. Hitler left the stadium before the presentations took place. African Americans also won gold medals in the 800-meter race (John Woodruff), 400-meter race (Archie Williams), and high jump (Cornelius Johnson).After Berlin, Owens decided to return to the United States to take up commercial offers rather than tour Europe with the rest of the American team, and as a result he was banned from competing in amateur athletics by the American Athletics Union. The commercial opportunities involved competing against other sportspeople, like Joe Louis, or racing horses or motor bikes. Owens’s venture into the dry cleaning business ended in bankruptcy, and he was employed for some time in limited public relations roles. In the mid-1950s, he was employed by the State Department and sent as a goodwill ambassador to a number of countries in Asia, but in the 1960s he was prosecuted and fined for tax evasion. Owens did not take any part in the civil rights protests of the period and was highly critical of the athletes who adopted the black power pose at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. In the 1970s, Owens’s career improved, and he became a successful spokesman for the Ford Motor Company and American Express. In 1976, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford; after his death, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . Neil A. Wynn . 2015.