Jesse Owens, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of slaves, went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and upset Hitler’s visions of Aryan supremacy. He did it not once, but four times, winning gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, the long jump and the 4 x 100 meter relay. The first race was captured by the German filmmaker/propagandist Leni Riefenstahl in her famous almost tour film documenting the 1936 Games, Olympia. It’s all queued up below and ready to watch:
Now the cruel footnote to this story: after his four victories, Owens returned to the U.S. and immediately confronted the cold racist attitudes of his countrymen. There was no pause, no reprieve, even for an Olympic gold medalist. Later, he recalled:
When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.
New York City did hold a ticker-tape parade in his honor. But when he attended a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria, he was forced to ride the freight elevator. And he didn’t make it to the White House until Eisenhower named him an “Ambassador of Sports” in 1955. FDR and Truman never bothered to extend an invitation to the Olympic hero.