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A Black Man (Jesse Owens) and a Nazi: A Friendship Forged in Competition & Courage

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 4, 2023 3:01 am

A Black Man (Jesse Owens) and a Nazi: A Friendship Forged in Competition & Courage

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 4, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the story of United States Olympic legend Jesse Owens' and Nazi long jumper Luz Long’s friendship demonstrates how sports can unite people even in the toughest circumstances. Here to tell the story is the Jack Miller Center's editorial officer and historian, Elliott Drago. 

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Live preseason games are subject to local blackouts. And we continue with our American Stories. The story of United States Olympic legend Jesse Owens and Nazi long jumper, Luz Long's friendship demonstrates how sports can unite people even in the toughest of circumstances. Here to tell a story is the Jack Miller Center's editorial officer and historian, Elliott Drago. The Jack Miller Center, by the way, is a nationwide network of scholars and teachers dedicated to educating the next generation about America's founding principles and history.

To learn more, visit Jack Miller Center dot org. Let's take a listen. Jesse Owens stood and gazed across Berlin's Olympic Stadium in August 1936, the first week of the 11th Olympiad. The immense structure and architectural marvel shook whenever the crowd of one hundred thousand Germans in attendance roared. And their cheers and boos began to unnerve Owens, who is arguably one of the most disciplined athletes in history. This entire spectacle was almost too much for him. He was more than just mad.

He was, in his words, hate mad. Owens steeled himself for his second long jump attempt. His first attempt left him both winded and disheartened, as not only did he fail to hit his mark, he also received a foul from the German official. True to form, Owens refused to make excuses and later admitted that the foul on his first long jump attempt was fair. I will be more careful with my second jump, he thought. There's no sense of being fouled twice.

He began his second attempt, running, leaping. But before he even landed, he heard the German official shout foul. Even though he played it safe, perhaps too safe, Owens could not get over the injustice of that second foul.

Was the official fair? Yeah, Owens later wrote. But a Nazi. Returning to his starting position, Owens caught a glimpse of his nemesis, the German long jumper Luz Long, who seemed to embody the Aryan ideal. He was tall, blond haired, blue eyed, and above all, a ferocious competitor.

After Owens second jump and foul, Long appeared to snicker with his German teammates. Adding insult to injury, the host of the 1936 Olympics himself, Adolf Hitler, left his seat to avoid watching Owens, someone he considered subhuman, compete in the event. Owens would not let Hitler's disgusting racial views, warped reality, and cowardice jeopardize his performance. Owens had overcome so many hurdles already by age 22, and so by tapping into his competitive spirit, he would soon overcome the leader of the Third Reich. The son of sharecroppers and the grandson of enslaved Alabamians, Owens' work ethic combined with his big heart produced an unbelievable athletic career. As a high schooler, he won all the major track events, including the state championship three years in a row. Nicknamed the Buckeye Bullet at Ohio State University, Owens broke three world records and tied another in one afternoon. Even more incredible, Owens accomplished these feats during a time of rampant segregation.

He never received a college scholarship, never stayed in the same hotels as his white teammates, and despite serving as varsity captain of the track team, Jesse Owens was forced to live off campus. Meanwhile, as the 1936 Berlin Olympics approached, many Americans urged the US to boycott the games. Initially, Owens sided with the boycott, stating in November 1935 that if there is discrimination against minorities in Germany, then we must withdraw from the Olympics. Hitler and other Nazi officials, however, assured America that Jewish and black athletes would receive equal treatment.

These assurances from Hitler and his regime, anathema as they sound to us today, proved decisive. The American Amateur Union threw its weight behind the American Olympic Committee, effectively avoiding a US boycott. Owens, committed to participating in the games and responding to his critics, said, since we are all Americans, black Americans should have a chance in every sport.

Certainly the showing of black Americans in track events shows that if they have half a chance, they produce the goods. Now in Berlin, making his third and final attempt at the long jump, Jesse Owens stood in total panic near his starting position. He couldn't stop thinking about Hitler's snub, the bogus foul, the smirk from his worst enemy, Luz Lang. Owens started to feel faint and began gasping for breath. The anxiety might double him over.

The eyes of Nazi Germany, and indeed the entire world, bore down upon him. He instinctively turned away from the crowd. Owens wouldn't give them the satisfaction of seeing him rattled. Still, Owens almost dropped to the ground in front of a hundred thousand chanting Germans who, in his words, were hatefully, gleefully hoping that he would fail. Knees shaking, he clenched his jaw to stop his thoughts from racing.

And then it happened. Suddenly, Owens felt a firm hand on his arm. He turned and looked into the sky blue eyes of his worst enemy. Luz Lang, the poser child for Hitler's Aryan ideal, touched Jesse Owens, a black man, in full view of the entire stadium. Like a family member, Lang gently took Owens aside, his arm around his shoulder. Lang knew that Hitler had insulted Owens. He knew the stakes of Owens' pending jump. And most importantly, Lang knew that he and Owens were essentially the same. I have thought, Lang told him.

You are like I am. You must do it 100%, correct? Owens nodded.

Yet you must be sure not to foul. Owens' name blared out of the stadium loudspeaker, announcing what would be his final attempt at the Lang jump. Both men knew that time was of the essence. Leaning closer to Owens, Lang spoke quickly and resolutely.

Then you can do both things, Jesse, Lang reassured him. You re-measure your steps. You take off six inches behind the foul board. You jump as hard as you can.

But you need not fear to foul. Now, with a towel carefully marking six inches before the takeoff board, Owens ran, jumped, and won the gold medal. By the end of the Olympics, Owens produced the goods, as his efforts contributed to four out of the United States' eleven gold medals. Lang's advice left an indelible mark on Owens. After he failed to beat Owens at the Lang jump, Lang raced over to Owens, grabbed his hand, and marched toward the stands chanting, Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens, Jesse Owens, in full view of Hitler, who had by now reappeared in the stands to watch Lang's performance. Lang and Owens became fast friends and spent many nights talking politics, philosophy, and sports in the Olympic village. The German explained that although he did not subscribe to Hitler's racial fanaticism, he loved his country and would fight for it.

After the Olympics, they remained in touch. In 1939, Owens received a final letter from Lang, who wrote, Signed, Luz. Lang died fighting for the German Wehrmacht after succumbing to wounds he received during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. Reflecting on his experience in the Lang jump, Owens did not waste ink writing about Hitler. His lasting memory of the Olympics was the relationship he formed with Luz Lang. I loved Luz Lang as much as my own brothers, Owens wrote years later.

I still love Luz Lang. Their friendship came from what Owens described as the priceless knowledge that the only bond worth anything between human beings is their humanness. Owens recognized that if Lang, a human being living in Nazi Germany, could walk arm in arm with him around the Olympic stadium in Berlin, then all humans could strive to recognize each other's fundamental human equality and, in his words, be a human being first and last if not always. Jesse Owens continues to inspire us as we long to realize the dreams offered by our nation's founding principles. And lest we forget, Owens will advise us. We all have dreams.

But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort. A terrific job on the production, the editing, and storytelling by our own Greg Hengler. And a special thanks to Elliot Drago at the Jack Miller Center.

He's the editorial officer and resident historian. And what a story we should be telling everyone near and far about not only Jesse Owens, but about Luz Lang. And that final letter he wrote in 1939, I may die fighting for the wrong thing.

And of course he did. The story of Jesse Owens and Luz Lang, of friendship forged in competition, and of course, in courage and love, here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share these powerful perspectives from real people with MG so their experiences can help inspire the MG community and educate others about this rare condition.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-04 04:23:34 / 2023-08-04 04:28:38 / 5

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