Jesse Owens: Setting the Pace still


I am not a runner, never have been, unless, of course, you are talking about matters of the heart and soul, then I can be a top-notch runner. I can run away from things I don’t want to deal with as well as any emotional marathoner.

My neighbor, Sarah, she’s a runner. She runs every day. I see her all times of the year, from ear muff weather to tank-top weather, running. She competes in races all the time, too. She’s like Forest Gump, always running these long distance. A 10-mile run is just a warm up for Sarah.

My friend, Kim, his sons are runners. Like I mean, serious runners. Nike team runners. Jacob and Tommy are ultra-runners. I remember when Tommy was just a wiry boy who hung around my youngest daughter. Konnie became the most dedicated runner in our family, but she was never a match for Tommy. That boy took running to a whole other level.

I was thinking about all of them the day I turned down Country Road in wayback Alabama and drove up to the Jesse Owens Memorial  Park. I didn’t know what to expect, really. I didn’t even know there was a Jesse Owens museum in wayback Alabama until I passed a road sign alerting me to it. I wasn’t able to stop the first time I passed the sign as I had a book event to attend.

But after the event, I decided I’d head back down the road a piece and take a looky-see.

The museum is located in a wide open green space at the top of a knoll overlooking pasture land. It is scenic in that quiet country road kind of way. I’ve been to a lot of museums in my lifetime. Multi-million museums in Washington D.C. and Atlanta, Georgia, and even in Columbus, Georgia, my hometown. But I’ve also been to museums cobbled together with whatever pithy donations locals could collect in places like Devils Lake, South Dakota, and Eatonville, Georgia. There is no museum so small I won’t stop at it.  In fact, the smaller it is, the more likely I am to stop.

I can’t tell you what kind of experience I was expecting to find, stopping at the Jesse Owens Museum, but whatever notions I had were completely erased from recall. The first thing that greeted me at the museum was a large bronze statue of Jesse and the five interlocking rings of the Olympic symbol. I stood at the base of that statue staring up, realizing in that moment that I knew very little about Jesse Owens, about his achievements, about his childhood, about his story at all.

I followed a path out to a log house, the kind familiar to anyone who had family that lived in the hollers of Alabama or Georgia or Tennessee at one time. I pushed a button and one of Jesse’s brothers came over speaker and began to explain how the kids all slept in the same room – seven boys and three girls. Jesse’s grandparents were slaves. His own father a sharecropper. Jesse, the more sickly of the children, was still expected to pick cotton alongside his siblings. There were no child labor laws for those hoping to eat. It was here, on these back road of Alabama that Jesse took to running. Sometimes just racing his brothers to the field. Sometimes just to to have a bit of quiet in his own head.

Mid-way through is growing up years, the family up and left the cotton fields of their yesterdays  and moved off up north, part of that black migration to cities that promised blacks an economically better life, if not a less racially-divisive one.

It was in Cleveland that Jesse flourished.

But perhaps you know all that already. Perhaps you are well-versed on Owens and his family history and his many awe-inspiring achievements.

I wasn’t. So I was woefully ignorant of the man I would come to encounter inside the doors of the Jesse Owens Museum. The dignity of Owens stood in direct contrast to so much of what we are all exposed to on a daily basis. The discipline of Owens such a stark reminder of what is lost when a nation is exposed to the abuses of the undisciplined on a daily basis. The intentional actions of Owens a reprimand to a nation that lives not for the hope of tomorrow but for the lusts of the present.

The museum was quiet. A college group having just departed. I was greeted warmly by Ms. Deb who offered right away to show me a film about Owens. A necessity, really, to understanding the life of the man behind the medals. I had not previously seen anything other than the occasional news clip of Owens victory in Berlin in 1936. This particular film is a longer documentary-style flick, narrated by Jesse himself.

What got me, however, wasn’t the story of Jesse, as much as it was the story of 1936 Berlin. The adulation of the crowd for Adolf Hitler. Like most of you, I have seen my share of documentaries on Hitler. I have read Bonhoeffer and various other books about Hitler’s rise to power. And maybe it was because that week had been a particularly difficult week, as has been every week since Nov. 8th, 2016. This time last year, I was holed up in an actual monastery, praying my way into these previously uncharted territories. Trying, but failing, to learn the lessons of forgiveness and grace.

It wasn’t Owens. It wasn’t that Hitler didn’t shake his hand, didn’t acknowledge the Gold medals – four of them – that Owens earned.

All that was bad enough.

It was that Owens, a black man, was far more worthy of a man than Hitler could ever hope to be.

Yet, the crowds, those crowds, those cheering masses, those people rose to their feet, those people hailed a man so unworthy, so hateful, so racist, so evil. They hailed him, cheered him with a frightening ferocity. By the thousands. By the dozens of thousands, they rose to their feet in the stadium and shouted out their love and admiration for a man who would go on to slaughter without mercy those he deemed “less than.”

The way he deemed Jesse Owens “less than.”

The way he deemed any black man “less than.”

It was all too much for me.

By the time that documentary finished, I was completely overcome. I sat on that bench in that beautiful museum and I wept for Jesse Owens. I wept for all those who cheered. I wept for those who would soon be led to the slaughter. I wept for those who did the slaughtering. I wept for the evil that Hitler unleashed upon  this world.

Then I wept for our world.

This one.

The one we currently live in.

And for all the evil that Donald Trump and his administration have unleashed upon our nation, upon our world.

It cause me to weep again, just thinking of that moment.

The juxtapositions, Barry Hannah told me. It’s the juxtapositions that writers write about.

I’d happily give up being a writer if it meant that I wouldn’t have to ever deal with the topic of good and evil again. If men like Donald Trump and Hitler never rose to power again. And spare me the lectures about how Trump isn’t anything like Hitler. He is worse. Because he has had every opportunity in life, opportunities Hitler never got, to do better, to be a better person, and yet, he just isn’t. He’s awful. He’s hateful and mean and just plain evil. Everything he does he does with the intention of destroying what was. There is no manner of humility or kindness or goodness within Donald Trump. He does not care for people. He cares only for power.

The same as Hitler.

Given the chance, Trump will slaughter millions, too.

Everyone pretends it isn’t so, even as they witness it.

And that’s what had me weeping like a woman in mourning that late summer day in Alabama.

Deb saw me weeping there. Saw that I was overcome. Saw that I was unable to speak, to tell her the mix of emotions that had overtaken me while watching that documentary on Owens in Berlin in 1936, knowing the horrors that would follow and being gobsmacked by the adulation of the masses for such an evil-hearted man.

I couldn’t stop crying enough to tell Deb about how when I had been in DC during a Trump rally last year, I’d seen that same sort of fervor in the crowd. They rushed each other in an effort to get near the old man in the red MAGA hat. They shouted at complete strangers in an orgasmic urgency: There he is! There he is! As if they were announcing the arrival of Jesus himself.

Whatever that fervor that existed in the crowds in that stadium in Berlin in 1936, that caused people to jump to their feet and extend their arms in a Heil Hitler salute – that was the same fervor present at the Trump rally that day in D.C.. A phenomenon, the journalists in the crowd that day called it.

A nightmare, said I.

Deb, who did not know me, who knew nothing about me, who I was, what my name was, nothing. She wanted to show me something. Could I come with her?

I nodded and followed.

She took me over to wall display of a framed check. It was from the Obamas. It seems Barack is a big fan of Jesse Owens. Michelle had called the museum and asked them to put together a gift basket for his birthday, or anniversary. I can’t remember which.  “I don’t know what your politics are,” Deb said. “But I think this is big deal.”

I scrolled through the photos on my phone and then showed Deb the one of me with Obama at the White House. “I’m a Gold Star daughter,” I said. “My father was killed in Vietnam.”

“Me, too,” Deb said, not missing a beat. “I was 16.”

I’ve been blogging since 2005. I can count on a couple of fingers the number of times I have met another Gold Star son or daughter in a random encounter like this. God’s poetry. A divine encounter.

No one else came into that museum the entire time Deb and I stood there and spoke about our fathers, about our mothers, about God, about our country, about the racism that prevailed in our youth growing up Southern, and has now risen to the forefront of this nation once again.

And we talked about Jesse Owens. About how difficult it was for him, even after winning all those Gold Medals, to come back to a country where FDR did not shake his hand either, did not show him any more honor than Hitler had. Jesse himself said it best when he said everyone wanted to pat him on the back, but nobody wanted to give him a job. White people eager to brag on Jesse were hesitant to eat a meal with him in public places. Public places didn’t serve blacks. Whites only.

It would take him decades, but eventually Jesse Owens, who was loathe to be engaged in anything political, came to realize that “going along to get along” was more harmful than helpful.  That sort of acquiescence allowed for men like Hitler to rise to power. It also allowed for white men to rule over blacks, overtly and covertly.

In his memoir, Owens later wrote: “I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.”

There comes a time in every person’s life when the only way to retain one’s dignity is to speak up.

We are at such a time in this nation as well.

Too many of us mistake being quiet as the same as being a peacemaker. They are not the same thing. One requires inaction, the other requires action.

None of us, no matter how capable we are, can outrun the truth.

Sooner or later, it will win.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of CHRISTIAN BEND: A novel (Mercer University Press).


Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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