People in America -- a Special English program about people whowere important in the history of the United States. Today KayGallant and Harry Monroe tell the story of athlete Jesse Owens. Heonce was the fastest runner in the world.Graphic Image
In the summer of nineteen-thirty-six, people all over the worldheard the name of Jesse Owens. That summer, Jesse joined the bestathletes from fifty nations to compete in the Olympic games. Theymet in Germany, in the city of Berlin.Graphic Image
There was special interest in theOlympic games that year.
Adolf Hitler was ruler of Germany. Hitler and his Nazi partybelieved that white people -- especially German people -- were thebest race of people on earth. They believed that other races ofpeople -- especially those with dark skin -- were almost less thanhuman.
p>In the summer of nineteen thirty-six, Hitler wanted to prove hisbeliefs to the world. He wanted to show that German athletes couldwin every important competition. After all, only a few weeks beforethe Olympics, German boxer Max Schmeling had defeated the greatAmerican heavyweight Joe Louis, a black man.
Jesse Owens was black, too. Until nineteen-thirty-six, very fewblack athletes had competed in the Olympics for the United States.Jesse was proud to be on the team. He was very sure of his ability.
Jesse spent one week competing in four different Olympic trackand field events in Berlin. During that time, he did not think muchabout the color of his skin, or about Adolf Hitler.
He said later: "I was looking only at the finish line. I thoughtof all the years of practice and competition, and of all whobelieved in me."
We do not know what Hitler thought of Jesse Owens. No onerecorded what he said about this black man who ran faster and jumpedfarther than any man of any color at the Olympic Games. But we canstill see Jesse Owens as Hitler saw him. For at Hitler's request,motion pictures were made of the Berlin Olympic games.
The films show Jesse Owens as a thin, but powerfully built youngman with smooth brown skin and short hair. When he ran, he seemed tomove without effort. When he jumped, as one observer said, he seemedto jump clear out of Germany.
Jesse Owens won the highest award -- the gold medal -- in allfour of the Olympic competitions he entered. In the one-hundredmeter run, he equaled the fasted time ever run in that Olympicevent. In the long jump and the two-hundred meter run, he set newOlympic records. And as part of a four-man team, he helped set a newworld record for the four-hundred meter relay race.Graphic Image
Jesse's Olympic victories made him a hero. He returned home toparades in New York City and Columbus, Ohio, where he attended thestate university. Businessmen paid him for the right to use his nameon their stores. No one, however, offered him a permanent job.
For many years after the nineteen-thirty-six Olympic games, JesseOwens survived as best he could. He worked at small jobs. He evenused his athletic abilities, but in a sad way. He earned money byrunning races against horses. He and his wife and three daughterssaw both good times and bad times.
Poverty was not new to Jesse. He was born in nineteen-thirteen ona farm in the southern state of Alabama. He was the youngest ofthirteen children. His parents did not own the farm, and earnedlittle money. Jesse remembered that there was rarely enough food toeat. And there was not enough fuel to heat the house in winter.
Some of Jesse's brothers and sisters died while still young.Jesse, himself, was a sickly child. Partly because of this, andpartly because of the racial hatred they saw around them, Jesse'sparents decided to leave the south. They moved north, to Cleveland,Ohio, when Jesse was about ten years old.
The large family lived in a few small rooms in a part of the citythat was neither friendly nor pleasant to look at. Jesse's fatherwas no longer young or strong. He was unable to find a good job.Most of the time, no one would give him any work at all. But Jesse'solder brothers were able to get jobs in factories. So life was alittle better than it had been in the south.
Jesse, especially, was lucky. He entered a school where one whiteteacher, Charles Riley, took a special interest in him. Jesse lookedthin and unhealthy, and Riley wanted to make him stronger. Throughthe years that Jesse remained in school, Riley brought him food inthe morning. He often invited the boy to eat with his family in theevening. And every day before school, he taught Jesse how to runlike an athlete.
At first, the idea was only to make the boy stronger. But soonRiley saw that Jesse was a champion. By the time Jesse had completedhigh school, his name was known across the nation. Ohio StateUniversity wanted him to attend there. So it offered him a freeeducation. While at Ohio State, he set new world records in severaltrack and field events. And he was accepted as a member of theUnited States Olympic team.
Jesse always remembered the white man who helped change his life.Charles Riley did not seem to care what color a person's skin was.Jesse learned to think the same way.
Later in life, Jesse put all his energy into working with youngpeople. He wanted to tell them some of the things he had learnedabout life, work and success. That it is important to choose a goaland always work toward it. That there are good people in the worldwho will help you to reach your goal. That if you try again andagain, you will succeed.
People who heard Jesse's speeches say he spoke almost as well ashe ran.
Jesse received awards for his work with boys and girls. TheUnited States government sent him around the world as a kind ofsports ambassador. The International Olympic Committee asked for hisadvice.
In about nineteen-seventy, Jesse Owens wrote a book in which hetold about his life. It was called "Blackthink." In the book, Jessedenounced young black militants who blamed society for theirtroubles. He said young black people had the same chance to succeedin the United States as white people.
Many black civil rights activists reacted angrily. They said whatJesse had written was not true for everyone.
Jesse later admitted that he had been wrong. He saw that not allblacks were given the same chances and help that he had been given.In a second book, Jesse tried to explain what he had meant in hisfirst book. He called it I have changed. Jesse said that, in hisearlier book, he did not write about life as it was for everyone ...But about life as it was for him.
He said he truly wanted to believe that if you think you cansucceed--- and you really try -- then you have a chance. If you donot think you have a chance, then you probably will fail. He saidthese beliefs had worked for him. And he wanted all young people tobelieve them, too.
These were the same beliefs he tried to express when he spokearound the world about being an Olympic athlete. "The road to theOlympics," he said, "leads to no city, no country. It goes farbeyond New York or Moscow, ancient Greece or Nazi Germany. The roadto the Olympics leads -- in the end -- to the best within us."
Jesse Owens died of cancer in nineteen-eighty.
This program was written by Barbara Dash. Your narrators were KayGallant and Harry Monroe. This is Shirley Griffith. Listen againnext week at this same time for another People in America program inSpecial English on the Voice of America.