Capturing Black Lightning
by Amnesty Sports
We’ve all been there. You’re in class at your desk staring at some midterm/final exam/term paper that, for some reason or another, your academic survival hinges on you receiving a favorable grade. A single score, you reason, can tear you away from the newfound freedoms and festivities of campus life. This could be the low grade that sends you back home to your family as a failure! The pressure is palpable as the hours of lectures you took the time to record on your smartphone aren’t coming to mind. You’re even drawing a blank recalling the pages of meticulous notes and screenshots you took on the topic. Breathe! You’re supposed to clear this hurdle.
Outside of your expectations and those which your parents have placed on you (as unreasonable as they may be), statistically, the cards are still stacked in your favor. Every academic fact you’ve acquired since Kindergarten has prepared you for this moment and are at your disposal. The rigorous admissions process you endured while in high-school has proven beyond a doubt to all the gatekeepers that, you belong here. College is big business, where there’s a will (and some cash), there’s always another opportunity to retake the exam (even if you have to pay out of pocket). The point is your parents, your university, your professor, even the head of the PR department at your academic institution who just finalized a design for the brochure that will highlight how fun & pressure-free their campus is for next semester’s freshmen, are all rooting for you and are incentivized to see you through the next step.
Now instead, picture being indoctrinated since Kindergarten, about your limitations and shortcomings. How would taking that exam feel when what comes to mind are lectures by instructors and coaches alike about wide-held societal beliefs regarding your inferiority and the futility of your dreams? Imagine the pressure in knowing millions need you to succeed while tens of millions desire you to fail (even making it their mission). Consider those who, somehow passed those tests, even having among the top scores, despite the unfavorable odds and general expectation of failure.
There are a few brave athletes who’ve cleared the hurdles of their day despite some really poor odds. Although most played team sports, their most notable accomplishments had them stand out as individuals en route to becoming the first black athletes to play their respective sport professionally. While today’s high-flying, cash-cow American sports leagues are probably the world’s finest examples of the meritocratic and inclusive space that athletics should be, this hasn’t always been the case. Solely due to the color of their skin, our history includes social and legal barriers barring some of the nation’s best athletes from even participating!
Fast As Lightning
Yes, there was a time in America where being a black athlete was taboo. A boy, who would come to be known Jesse Owens and should be regarded as one of the truest champions of sport and pioneers from the lead-by-example-era, was born at an apex of those times. On September 12, 1913 a sharecropper named Henry Cleveland Owens and Mary Emma Fitzgerald gave birth to James Cleveland Owens, their last of 10 children. Born in Oakville, Alabama, Jesse Owens would eventually move to Cleveland Ohio due to the economic conditions of the times.
You see, some of the harsh realities of slavery that had pretty recently been abolished still took a toll on families of former slaves. A “Great Migration” of sorts resulted in over a million African Americans moving en mass from the south to the north looking for better opportunities for their families. Although Jesse’s family successfully migrated, things weren’t easy. In fact, the reason we know him as “Jesse” today is one of his teachers couldn’t understand his strong southern accent. When she asked his name, she heard ‘Jesse’ rather than J.C. (James Cleveland).
His family members worked in local steel mills while he worked various hard jobs to contribute to the household. At times he would be delivering groceries or working at a shoe repair shops or even loading freight cars to make ends meet. In the midst of this, he found time to fall in love with running!
Even while only in junior high school, he had to work after school. Fortunately, his track coach Charles Riley, allowed Jesse to practice early in the morning before class. Even at this age, Jesse began to develop the perseverance he would eventually display on the world stage. By the time he reached high school, Jesse would equal the World Record for 100 yard races (equivalent to 91m) crossing the line at 9.4 seconds!
“I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up.”- Jesse Owens
Owens’ talents would eventually lead him to Ohio State University where he would win 8 individual NCAA championships. His record for 100 meter dash stood for 80 years and was only recently broken in 2019 by OSU phenom Nick Gray. But, remember this was a different time. Although he was a rising star on the track field, due to segregation, he had to live off-campus with other African American athletes. For track meets, this also meant eating-in or finding available “blacks-only" restaurants in a particular city. This also meant Jesse Owens stayed at black-only hotels.
His astounding abilities didn’t even garner him the “free ride" to college that’s become the norm with the prominent athletes of today in the megalodon that is American collegiate athletics. He did not have a scholarship. Nope, Jesse Owens had to work while in school to cover his costs all while training to shatter world records.
And that he did. During a 1935 track meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Jesse Owens would make an name for himself. In less than an hour the 22 year old unleashed his talents and exploded out the blocks en rout to setting the three world records and equaling a fourth. He was tied for the world’s fastest man running 100 yards in 9.4 seconds. He set world records for the 220 yard low hurdles event, the 220 yard sprint, and the long jump. It was not only one of the greatest athletic feats for an African American at the time, it was one of the greatest on Earth in that era!
If that wasn’t enough, he would put on a repeat performance a year later at the 1936 Olympics. The games were hosted in Berlin that year and a Nazi Germany was dealing with it’s own sickening racist ideology. It’s understood the leadership of the nation at the time felt their ‘master' race to be superior to others and was anticipating the games would serve as means of demonstrating to the world their perceived superiority.
Truth has a way of ridiculing perception. Representing the United States (and by implication the African American race), Jesse was blessed to live up to the moment and channel perseverance developed through decades of training in spite of the abusive racist practices of his day. Jesse Owens collected a whopping four gold medals throughout the Games of the XI Olympiad!
He won a gold medal for the long jump, 4×100 Meter relay, 200 meter and 100 meter dash. This cemented him as the fastest man and highest jumping man alive of his day and through a monkey wrench of gargantuan proportions onto the dangerous and repulsive racist ideology of the (any) master race. Unfortunately, this thinking is so deeply rooted it didn’t immediately change things back at home.
"[The German Chancellor] didn’t snub me—it was our [U.S.] president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram."- Jesse Owens
Some took Owen’s performance as proof that African Americans are indeed of a “slave-class" race imbued with “enhanced" physical attributes best suited for hard labor. There were those who went as far as to suggest there was an inherent unfair advantage in allowing them to compete against their white counterparts at the games.
After returning victorious, Jesse Owens and his newly acquired hardware took park in a tinker-tape parade in New York City. At the end of the parade, Owens was still not allowed in the ‘whites’ front entrance of the famed Waldorf Astoria and had to take a back entrance. Because of financial disputes likely fueled by racism in athletic commissions at the time, Owen’s would soon lose his amateur status and ability to compete.
“There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway.” -Jesse Owens
Although his track career was cut short, Owens maintained his knack for hard work through his career ending up in various posts including serving as a director in the Ford motor company, a cofounder of the short-lived West Coast Negro Baseball League, running instructor for the New York Mets, owner of a Dry Cleaning business, and a US Goodwill ambassador.
So next time you find yourself facing some daunting odds, think of some of these athletes who had to endure the perceptions that they were intellectually diseased or otherwise genetically disqualified by virtue of their race. Of their many great accomplishments, those which don’t end up in the stat sheets, are the tiresome days these young pioneers spent pushing themselves for the love of their craft - which continues to contribute to the advancement of all marginalized peoples by inspiring each subsequent generation.
The next Usain Bolt may expect free room & board on a full athletic scholarship, the life that comes with that, multimillion dollar endorsement deals, the life that comes with that, and (if they’re they’re blessed & dedicated enough) gold medals and world records of their own. They will be best served remembering and embodying the merits of those who paved the way; often fighting and enduring harder trials, and receiving fewer perks & recognition in their day for their efforts.
Whatever it is that makes you rock, keep at it through the rough patches. You never know on which stage the star qualities you’ve developed through perseverance can land you. Today’s fastest man, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, earned $34.2 million in winnings and endorsements in 2017! You also never know how much your efforts today can benefit those in the distant future. Doubtless , a young Usain Bolt would’ve heard of Jesse Owens monumental achievements and use that as inspiration en route to his own world records.
It’s worth noting, in addition to being among the first African American athletes to reach such historic Olympic success, Jesse Owens also owns the distinction of being the first African American male athlete to have an endorsement deal as he was convinced by Adolf Dassler, founder of Adidas, to wear their sneakers for the 1936 Olympics.
Originally Published In: Freedom Papers