John Bradshaw - Running the Race
This is It Is Written. I'm John Bradshaw. Thanks for joining me. They're 10 of the most famous seconds in all of history. In 1936, a 22-year-old man stepped into the pages of history and captured the imagination of people all over the world. His story is one of humble beginnings and overcoming impossible odds. He became the most famous person on the planet, carrying the hopes of his country into a complicated political situation while delivering a black eye to one of history's most controversial figures. Oakville, Alabama, might seem like a curious place for a museum, 70 miles or so from Birmingham and 15 miles off the freeway. But it was right here that one of the most gifted athletes in all of history was born. His story is one of redemption, struggle, triumph, of overcoming odds and paving the way for many who came after him.
James Cleveland Owens spent the first years of his life here. As a little boy he picked cotton in these fields and, as one of 10 children, lived in a small cabin almost identical to this one. The children all slept on the floor. Mother and father slept in the only bed. James attended church with his siblings and his devout parents in a building that doubled as a schoolhouse, and they all faced an uncertain future. His grandparents had been slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed just 50 years before he was born. Job opportunities in rural Alabama were scarce. A meaningful education was completely out of the question for a black kid in the South.
But a couple of things came together to give young James a future. For one thing, he could really run. And sensing there were no opportunities for their children, his parents, Henry and Mary, joined the great migration from the American South, relocating their family to Cleveland, Ohio. Young J.C. was among the millions of African-Americans who left the South in search of opportunity, and opportunity found J.C. What if this young man had never had the opportunity to move north? I asked Nancy Pinion, director of the Jesse Owens Museum in Oakville, Alabama. What do you think his life would have looked like if he hadn't moved, if he and his family had not moved north?
Nancy Pinion: His life, um, would have looked very different. He would have not had a chance in Alabama to become educated, much less to have competed in sports, as he did in Ohio and in college. His family were sharecroppers, and they probably would have still been sharecroppers his entire life. He would not have been able to have gone to school with the, you know, whites here.
John Bradshaw: It was while he was attending Fairmount Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio, that J.C. was taken under the wing of a track coach named Charles Riley. By now the young man was known as Jesse. A teacher misunderstood his name, J.C. By the time he was a high school kid of 15 years of age, he was one of the fastest men on the planet. With the right opportunities, the gifts and abilities Jesse possessed were nurtured, and the boy from Alabama got the opportunity to attend Ohio State University, where he established himself as one of the world's elite track-and-field athletes. By the time he was 21, Jesse Owens had set world records. He tied the world record over 100 yards while he was in high school. But it was what he did in a period of just 45 minutes one day in May of 1935 that set the sporting world ablaze. These were the days in which tens of thousands of people would show up to watch college track events.
So what happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan, echoed around the world. In spite of a back injury so severe that his coach, Larry Snyder, demanded he withdraw from the Big Ten championships, Owens broke three world records and equaled a fourth. Prior to this, no one had ever broken two world records in a day, and Owens set four world marks in three-quarters of an hour. He was now the world's fastest over the 220-yard hurdles, in the 220-yards dash, the broad jump, that's what today we would call the long jump, and he co-owned the world record in the 100 yards. In fact, his broad jump record stood for 25 years. And all this happened in an age when the running tracks were made from packed dirt. Sprinters would use a trowel to dig holes in the track to act as starting blocks. Uniforms were made from heavy cotton. This was the sporting Stone Age compared to today. Yet Owens was a legend, a phenomenon, and straight ahead were the 1936 Olympic Games.
Now, you can't consider the Jesse Owens story without remembering the times. The United States was marinating in Jim Crow. Jesse Owens couldn't have attended the University of Alabama in his home state as Alabama didn't accept black students until 1963. This was 20 years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus. Jackie Robinson wouldn't break the color barrier in professional baseball for another dozen years. Owens couldn't eat at most restaurants or stay in most hotels simply because of the color of his skin. He was about to become the hero of a nation that didn't extend basic civil rights to him or his family. And without being any kind of activist, Jesse Owens was going to bring discrimination into focus like no athlete had ever done.
The 1936 Olympic Games were to be held in Berlin, Germany, and would be unapologetically a massive propaganda campaign for Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party and their belief in the superiority of the white race. Now, the United States very nearly didn't attend the 1936 Olympic Games. How in the world could America support a regime that practiced open hostile racism against its own people? If the United States withdrew from the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens' future would have looked vastly different. He wouldn't have gone to Berlin, and we wouldn't be talking about him right now. The boy with no future would not have had a future. So what happened? And how does this speak to faith in God? I'll tell you in just a moment.
Thanks for joining me on It Is Written. Germany in 1936 was not yet Germany in 1939 or 1943. But people around the world were looking at what was happening in Germany with growing unease. Even though the real horrors of the Holocaust were still a few years away, laws had already been passed designating Jews, who made up less than one percent of Germany's population, as second-class citizens. Jews made such a major and positive contribution to Germany's culture and economy that many thought that Germany would never really marginalize them. But by 1936 Jews were being attacked, Jewish businesses were being boycotted, Jewish books were being publicly burned, and Jews were prevented from participating in many aspects of German life.
Legislation passed in 1935 stripped Jews of their citizenship and prevented them from marrying non-Jews. The same laws applied to the Roma, or Gypsies, and blacks. In the United States, the propriety of attending the Olympic Games in Germany, and by so doing tacitly supporting Hitler's regime, was being seriously questioned. Many were calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games, among them state governors and U.S. senators. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia insisted the United States boycott the 1936 Olympics.
There was real division in black America over this question. Should the 18 black athletes on the 1936 team protest Hitler and boycott, or go to Berlin and show the world how wrong Hitler's racist ideas were? Ultimately, the Amateur Athletic Union voted narrowly not to boycott. And Jesse Owens was caught in the middle of it all. The secretary of the NAACP personally requested Owens not run at the Olympics. His coach, Larry Snyder, urged him to do so, to run. By now he had a wife and daughter, and Snyder believed that Jesse could earn $100,000 if he was successful in Berlin. By so doing he could secure his family's future. Jesse was under immense pressure from a wide array of different people to speak up for a cause. What sort of difficulty did that place him under?
Nancy Pinion: He had to consider the fact that the NAACP was asking him not to take a stand. You know, his family was taking a stand. But it was his choice. So I think he considered it all from every direction and made his own choice, which was the right choice we know now.
John Bradshaw: Owens' success in Berlin was not guaranteed. In the lead-up to the Games, his great rival, Eulace Peacock of New Jersey, like Owens, was born in Alabama, was regularly beating him. Maybe the man with the world records would only win silver in Berlin. But shortly before the Olympic trials, Eulace Peacock pulled a hamstring. The Olympics for him were over before they began. The 110,000-seat Olympic stadium in Berlin was constructed especially for the event. I've been there myself. It's an impressive structure. And as the world looked on, the Games went ahead, and Jesse Owens ran and jumped into history. He set a world record in the heats of the 100 meters and went on to win the gold medal.
American Ralph Metcalfe, born in Georgia and raised in Chicago, came second. He set another world record winning the final of the 200 meters, with Mack Robinson, older brother of baseball great Jackie Robinson, winning silver. In the long jump, Owens beat the German champion Luz Long, in what was an epic battle, and he might not have if Long hadn't demonstrated some remarkable sportsmanship. The very white, very German Long offered his African-American rival some friendly advice when it looked like Owens was going to foul out of the event. Owens followed Long's gracious advice and went on to beat the German for the gold medal, deeply moved by Long's gracious gesture.
So now, Owens had three gold medals, a phenomenal result. And he believed his Olympics were over. The only other event he might have competed in was the 4x100 meters relay, but Owens was never going to be on the relay team. Frank Wykoff had won gold as a member of the 4x100 meters relay team in Amsterdam in 1928 and Los Angeles in 1932. No doubt he'd be on the team, then Ralph Metcalfe most likely. Remember, Metcalfe finished second behind Owens in the final of the 100. Then there'd be Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, who traveled to Berlin just to compete in the 4x100 meters relay. But when the team was announced, Glickman and Stoller were not named.
Now, why would that be? It was said, so that the very fastest runners could give the United States the best chance at victory. Except that no matter who they started, the American athletes were always going to obliterate their opposition. At the Berlin Olympics, Hitler's Olympics, an homage to the National Socialist Party, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, both Jews, were left out of the relay team. The United States set a world record. Owens got his fourth gold medal, and along with it got to see American discrimination at work on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Now, what about Hitler's famous snub of Jesse Owens? Did it actually happen? And what spiritual lessons can we learn from Jesse Owens' ascent to the top of the track-and-field world? I'll have that in just a moment.
So, did Adolf Hitler actually snub Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics? That's what's commonly stated. I've said so myself on this program, but it might not have been quite that simple. Near the end of the first day of competition, Hitler chose to leave the stadium a few minutes early, meaning he didn't congratulate Cornelius Johnson and Dave Albritton, African-American athletes who finished first and second in the high jump. His reasons? Well, officially, Hitler wanted to beat the traffic. You can believe that if you wish. The president of the International Olympic Committee was furious, and he insisted that Hitler either congratulate all of the athletes or none of the athletes.
So Hitler chose option B. In fact, according to author Jeremy Schaap, Owens was quoted as saying, "Hitler didn't snub me, it was our president who snubbed me. The president", that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "didn't even send me a telegram". Interesting fact: Dave Albritton, second in the high jump, he grew up just a few miles away from Owens in Alabama. His family also moved to Cleveland in the Great Migration. He and Owens went to high school together, to Ohio State together, where they were members of the same fraternity, and to Berlin together, where they both won medals. After the Olympics, Albritton became a high school teacher and a coach. He ran an insurance business and was a six-term member of the Ohio House of Representatives.
According to the state of Ohio, he tried to qualify at the age of 36 for the 1948 London Olympics. Although he didn't qualify, his best jump in 1948 would have been good enough to win gold, had he made it to London. Jesse Owens returned to the United States with four gold medals and a lot of promises, which, for the most part, never came to anything. The big money offers Owens received while he was in Berlin simply never materialized. They were publicity stunts. America in those days evidently preferred its heroes to "stay in their lane".
Owens became an attraction of sorts, competing in novelty races, but eventually he earned a comfortable living. He became a goodwill ambassador for the United States government and did endorsements for numerous companies. He even went into business with his old rival Eulace Peacock. But in order to get to Berlin, Jesse Owens had to overcome the myriad circumstances in his early life that conspired to keep him from succeeding in life. The barriers he had to overcome were immense, but overcome them he did. He had natural talent, but that talent had to be honed, disciplined, and it took copious amounts of character for Owens to rise to the top of the sporting world. And he did so with an incredible amount of dignity. So what kind of future are you supposed to have? Oh, I don't mean, "Could you grow up to become the president of the United States, or, or, or do you have what it takes to go to college"?
I think by now every person knows that inside them is incredible potential, that when harnessed could do an immense amount of good in this world. I want to look at this with you from a spiritual point of view. The Bible says that you have an enemy, an adversary, who "walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour". You find that in 1 Peter 5 in verse 8. The book of Revelation speaks of "the accuser of our brethren". That's Satan. He's an accuser. He's the one who says that you'll never amount to anything. It's the devil who says you can't overcome your weaknesses, that you're doomed to live a life of defeat and sin. But nothing could be further from the truth.
There's a fascinating exchange found in the book of Zechariah. Chapter 3 starts like this: "Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to oppose him", or to accuse him. So this is a picture of a sinner and the devil accusing that sinner of not being worthy of God's grace and mercy. Verse 2: "And the Lord said to Satan, 'The Lord rebuke you, Satan! 'The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?'" The Bible says every last person alive has sinned and that "the wages of sin is death". So when Satan speaks up and says you're not worthy of the grace of God, he'd be right, except that Jesus died on the cross to redeem you, to make you His own. Therefore, Satan is wrong. You shouldn't have a spiritual future, but you do. You've been redeemed.
The passage goes on to say that "Joshua was clothed [in] filthy garments," which represents sin, and that God removed Joshua's filthy clothing and clothed him with clean, spotless clothing, representing the righteousness of Jesus. See that? God takes away your sin and gives you His righteousness. So now what does your future look like? Jesse Owens was born into a life that guaranteed him hardship and discrimination, into circumstances designed to keep opportunity away from him. But his family prayed and moved, and his gifts were recognized and developed, and doors opened, and eventually he traveled the world representing his country as both an athlete and an ambassador. He lived through some extremely challenging days, and he saw change come. He was part of that change.
You know what your potential is, don't you? Your potential is everlasting life, salvation, redemption, transformation. Everywhere you turn there are voices telling you that you can't do it, that you're not worthy. But the cross of Jesus tells you that you are worthy of the love and grace of God, because "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life". John 3:16. That's what God sees for you. If you can't see it, believe it; believe it by faith.
Would you accept God's offer of everlasting life right now? If you've never done so, there's no need to wait. Don't believe the accuser. Don't believe the, the inner voices, that self-condemnation telling you failed so many times that you're not good enough. Instead, listen to the voice of Jesus, the One who says, "The one who comes to me I will by no means cast out". The Bible declares that you "can do all things through Christ who strengthens [you]," and that God will work "in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure". Don't let the enemy hold you back. God has created you for great things, and when you invite Him into your heart, you begin to realize the plans God has for you to achieve eternal greatness. You might see humble beginnings, difficult circumstances, but God sees victory for you as you run the race of life.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You today for Jesus. We thank You that through His death on the cross we have a bright and eternal future. I'm grateful today, dear Lord, that we do not need to look at our own limitations and believe that they restrict us from heaven. We do not need to look at our own failings and shortcomings and believe that they keep us from Your blessing. We thank You that through the presence of the Holy Spirit, every life can be transformed and every heart might be made new.
Let me ask you, friend: How is it with you today? We've looked at the story of somebody who was born into circumstances that should have prevented him from achieving anything at all, and yet he couldn't be held back. How is it with you spiritually? What's holding you back? Nothing needs to, if you would yield your heart to Jesus. Invite God to be the God of your life. You can know that He will give you a new heart, take away your sin, and give you an eternal future and everlasting life. Would you claim that, friend? Would you do so now? Would you say, "God, I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior and I believe that You, the God of heaven, are truly my God"?
We thank You, heavenly Father, that as we run the race of life, we look towards the finish line knowing Jesus is soon to return, knowing eternity stretches before us. We face our future in hope and confidence, for Jesus has died for us. In Jesus' name we pray, amen.