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Real Hero Jesse Owens: “Hitler Didn’t Snub Me — It Was Our President” by Lawrence W. Reed

James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens famously won four gold medals, all at the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany. But in the hearts of Americans who know their Olympic history, this African American man did more than win races: he struggled against racism.

At the time of Owens’s death in 1980 at age 66, President Jimmy Carter paid this tribute to him:

Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty, and racial bigotry. His personal triumphs as a world-class athlete and record holder were the prelude to a career devoted to helping others. His work with young athletes, as an unofficial ambassador overseas, and a spokesman for freedom are a rich legacy to his fellow Americans.

Carter’s words were especially fitting in light of an unfortunate fact in Owens’s life: unforgivably, a previous American president had given him the brush-off.

Born in Alabama in 1913, James Owens at the age of nine moved with his family to the town in Ohio that bore his middle name, Cleveland. His first school teacher there asked him his name. With a deep Southern twang, he replied “J.C. Owens.” She heard “Jesse,” so that’s what she wrote down. The name stuck for the next 57 years.

Jesse could run like the wind and jump like a kangaroo. He broke junior high school records in the high jump and the broad jump. In high school, he won every major track event in which he competed, tying or breaking world records in the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes and setting a new world record in the broad jump. Universities showered him with scholarship offers, but he turned them all down and chose Ohio State, which wasn’t extending track scholarships at the time.

Imagine it. You come from a relatively poor family. You could go to any number of colleges for next to nothing, but you pick one you have to pay for. At 21, you have a wife to support as well. So what do you do? If you are Jesse Owens, you work your way through school as a gas station attendant, a waiter, an all-night elevator operator, a library assistant, even a page in the Ohio legislature. Owens worked, studied, practiced on the field, and set more records in track during his years at OSU.

The biography at JesseOwens.com tells the stunning story that unfolded in 1935:

Jesse gave the world a preview of things to come in Berlin while at the Big Ten Championships in Ann Arbor on May 25, 1935, [where] he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes. Jesse was uncertain as to whether he would be able to participate at all, as he was suffering from a sore back as a result of a fall down a flight of stairs. He convinced his coach to allow him to run the 100-yard dash as a test for his back, and amazingly he recorded an official time of 9.4 seconds, once again tying the world record. Despite the pain, he then went on to participate in three other events, setting a world record in each event. In a span of 45 minutes, Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in history — setting three world records and tying a fourth in four grueling track and field events.

Ohio wasn’t the Deep South, but in the mid-1930s, it wasn’t a paradise of racial equality, either. OSU required Owens and other black athletes to live together off campus. They had to order carryout or eat at “black-only” restaurants and stay in segregated hotels when traveling with the team.

The eyes of the world were focused on Berlin in early August 1936. Five years earlier and before the Nazis came to power, the German capital had been selected as the site for the summer 1936 Olympic games. An effort to boycott them because of Hitler’s racism fizzled. It would be a few more years before events convinced the world of the socialist dictator’s evil intentions. Jesse Owens entered the competition with Americans thrilled at his prospects but wondering how Hitler would react if “Aryan superiority” fell short of his expectations.

Jesse didn’t go to Berlin with a political axe to grind. “I wanted no part of politics,” he said. “And I wasn’t in Berlin to compete against any one athlete. The purpose of the Olympics, anyway, was to do your best. As I’d learned long ago … the only victory that counts is the one over yourself.”

If, a hundred years from now, only one name is remembered among those who competed at the Berlin games, it will surely be that of Jesse Owens.

Owens won the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the 200-meter sprint, and the 4 x 100 sprint relay. In the process, he became the first American to claim four gold medals in a single Olympiad. Owens waved at Hitler and Hitler waved back, but the nasty little paper-hanger expressed his annoyance privately to fellow Nazi Albert Speer. He opined that blacks should never be allowed to compete in the games again.

A side story of Owens’s Berlin experience was the friendship he made with a German competitor named Lutz Long. A decent man by any measure, Long exhibited no racial animosity and even offered tips to Owens that the American found helpful during the games. Of Long, Owens would later tell an interviewer,

It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler.… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.

Back home, ticker tape parades feted Owens in New York City and Cleveland. Hundreds of thousands of Americans came out to cheer him. Letters, phone calls, and telegrams streamed in from around the world to congratulate him. From one important man, however, no word of recognition ever came. As Owens later put it, “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, leader of a major political party with deep roots in racism, couldn’t bring himself to utter a word of support, which may have been a factor in Owens’s decision to campaign for Republican Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election.

“It all goes so fast, and character makes the difference when it’s close,” Owens once said about athletic competition. He could have taught FDR a few lessons in character, but the president never gave him the chance. Owens wouldn’t be invited to the White House for almost 20 years — not until Dwight Eisenhower named him “Ambassador of Sports” in 1955.

Life after the Olympics wasn’t always kind to Jesse Owens. When he wanted to earn money from commercial endorsements, athletic officials yanked his amateur status. Then the commercial offers dried up. He was forced to file for bankruptcy. He felt the sting of racial discrimination again. But for the last 30 years of his life, until he died in 1980 of lung cancer, he found helping underprivileged teenagers to be even more personally satisfying that his Olympic gold medals.

For further information, see:

Jeremy Schaap’s Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics

David Clay Large’s Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936

Lawrence W. Reed
Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

American Jewish friends: Are we talking about you or someone you know?

Netanyahu obama israel

Bibi tête-à-tête Obama.

We were prompted to post an earlier version of this on my Facebook page in response to a Jewish Press op-ed by Varda Meyers Epstein, “How Could we Have Known: Jews who voted for Obama.” A native of Pittsburgh who made aliyah to Israel; she ably cataloged a number of warning signals about President Obama who has proven to be a cunning transformationalist.  Here are Ms. Epstein’s opening and closing tropes.

Beginning in 2007, those of us who saw the writing on the wall began campaigning against Obama. We knew he was bad for Israel from the things he said in interviews and from the people he hung out with, past and present. We posted articles that slammed him on social media and we lost friends for our insistent and incessant need to make our case: the one that would save Israel and Israeli Jews.

[…]

You want to tell me you really didn’t know about Obama’s hatred for the Jews and for Israel? Sorry, but I’m having trouble buying that story. But at the very least, you need to come out from under that rock and get a little, um, daylight. You’ve been looking a little pale since Tuesday.

We added to Ms. Epstein’s dossier with those of our own  thereby expanding on her theme.  After posting it on my Facebook page we received a welter of  “likes” and positive comments  from Australia, Canada, Israel and the U.S.  My chaver, ZoA stalwart in Philadelphia, Steve Feldman, who runs the Israel Activism Facebook page, thought it was “stupendous”.  A bit of hyperbole that, but thanks for the compliment, Steve.  However, I was brought up short by another chaver in Calgary, Bill Narvey, who, while he agreed with what I said, could we please “paragraph “it.  So here is a suitable presentation for Narvey and others.  The title for this piece was borrowed from a headline on Feldman’s Facebook post of what we originally wrote:

[H]ow could normally sensible Jewish Democrats have believed all that hokum about “Hope and Change” back in 2007 from an untried US Senator from Illinois who never completed a full term in office after leveraging a speech at the 2004 Democratic convention and two ghost written New York Times biographies allegedly by Bill Ayres . Who as a State Senator from Chicago voted present 100 times in the Illinois state legislature?

Or allied himself to the anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian crowd at annual dinners of the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee with Michelle and him seated at a table back in 1998 with one of his alleged mentors, the late Columbia Professor Edward Said.  Or when he told his Chicago Pal Ali Abunimah of The Electronic Intifada blog, during his run for US Senate backed by the gullible Chicago Jewish billionaires from the Pritzker and Crown Families of the Standard Club, that he wouldn’t forget both Abunimah and the Palestinian cause when he got to Washington.

Tell them how Obama lied about he had Israel’s back or that there was no diplomatic daylight between the US under his helm with Israel the only democratic ally in the Middle East. Tell them how he undertook secret negotiations with Iran back in the fall of his 2012 re-election using his Chicago mentor Valarie Jarrett to discuss a possible Iran nuke deal with Ali Akbar Salehi in Dubai, her childhood friend from living in Iran with her Chicago doctor father and mother after her birth in Shiraz.

Or ask them to explain how the July 14th announcement of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to cut off Iran from a bomb was followed by a UN Security Council unanimous endorsement a week later. That was less than a day after the Iran nuke pact was submitted to Congress for a review and vote by Rosh Ha Shanah in 2015.

Ask them why Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains in place and the EU-3 will commit to hardening it preventing Israel from sabotaging it. Ask them if they ever thought a sitting President would use his executive powers to transform this country into just another member of the multilateral Euro-trash socialist club. Ask them why he cozyied up to the Muslim Brotherhood both in the Middle East and here in the US, only to dump them for apocalyptic End times Shiite Iran giving them a free pass to arm Hamas and Hezbollah and boost the Islamic State ranging on Israel’s borders.

Yes, tell your talented chaverim v mispochim who funded and voted for Obama, not once, but twice, that he is laughing at them behind their backs now that he honored his commitment to his Chicago radical and Palestinian fellow travelers. Tell them to watch out for the Palestinian State UN Resolution that may be introduced for a vote soon now that his Iran nuke pact legacy has been endorsed by the Security Council even before the General Assembly UN meetings in September in Manhattan. Tell them to watch him manipulate gullible Jewish Democratic Members of Congress securing a yes vote for the Iran nuke deal enabling him to veto any negative majority GOP and minority Democrat vote by Rosh Ha Shanah.

Tell them all that and ask them finally, why they voted for this destroyer of their children and grand children’s futures here in America and in Israel. Go ahead, ask them that.

Then tell them to watch this NER You Tube video interview with contributing NER editor, Dr. Richard L. Rubenstein in June 2010.  Tell them to note his prescient bottom line assessment of Obama, as “the the most radical President, ever:”

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” Is Capitalism’s Finest Hour by Keith Farrell

AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire is a brilliant achievement. The show is a vibrant look at the emerging personal computer industry in the early 1980s. But more than that, the show is about capitalism, creative destruction, and innovation.

While we all know the PC industry changed the world, the visionaries and creators who brought us into the information age faced uncertainty over what their efforts would yield. They risked everything to build new machines and to create shaky start-ups. Often they failed and lost all they had.

HCF has four main characters: Joe, a visionary and salesman; Cameron, an eccentric programming geek; Gordon, a misunderstood engineering genius; and Gordon’s wife, Donna, a brilliant but unappreciated housewife and engineer.

The show pits programmers, hardware engineers, investors, big businesses, corporate lawyers, venture capitalists, and competing start-ups against each other and, at times, shows them having to cooperate to overcome mutual problems. The result is innovation.

Lee Pace gives an award-worthy performance as Joe MacMillan. The son of a never-present IBM tycoon and a negligent, drug addicted mother, Joe struggles with a host of mental and emotional problems. He’s a man with a brilliant mind and an amazing vision — but he has no computer knowledge or capabilities.

The series begins with his leaving a sales job at IBM in the hope of hijacking Cardiff Electric, a small Texas-based computer company, and launching it into the personal computing game.

As part of his scheme, he gets a low-level job at Cardiff where he recruits Gordon Clark, played by the equally talented Scoot McNairy. Enamored with Gordon’s prior writings on the potential for widespread personal computer use, Joe pleads with Gordon to reverse engineer an IBM-PC with him. The plot delves into the ethical ambiguities of intellectual property law as the two spend days reverse engineering the IBM BIOS.

While the show is fiction, it is inspired in part by the real-life events of Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq. His book, Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing serves as a basis for many of the events in the show’s first season.

In 1981, when Canion and his cohorts set out to make a portable PC, the market was dominated by IBM. Because IBM had rushed their IBM-PC to market, the system was made up entirely of off-the-shelf components and other companies’ software.

As a result, it was possible to buy those same components and software and build what was known as an IBM “clone.” But these clones were only mostlycompatible with IBM. While they could run DOS, they may or may not have run other programs written for IBM-PCs.

Because IBM dominated the market, all the best software was being written for IBMs. Canion wanted to build a computer that was 100 percent IBM compatible but cheaper — and portable enough to move from desk to desk.

Canion said in an interview on the Internet History Podcast, “We didn’t want to copy their computer! We wanted to have access to the software that was written for their computer by other people.”

But in order to do that, he and his team had to reverse-engineer the IBM BIOS. They couldn’t just steal or copy the code because it was proprietary technology, but they could figure out what function the code executed and then write their own code to handle the same task.

Canion explains:

What our lawyers told us was that not only can you not use [the copyrighted code], anybody that’s even looked at it — glanced at it — could taint the whole project. … We had two software people. One guy read the code and generated the functional specifications.

So it was like reading hieroglyphics. Figuring out what it does, then writing the specification for what it does. Then once he’s got that specification completed, he sort of hands it through a doorway or a window to another person who’s never seen IBM’s code, and he takes that spec and starts from scratch and writes our own code to be able to do the exact same function.

In Halt and Catch Fire, Joe uses this idea to push Cardiff into making their own PC by intentionally leaking to IBM that he and Gordon had indeed reversed engineered the BIOS. They recruit a young punk-rock programmer named Cameron Howe to write their own BIOS.

While Gordon, Cameron, and Joe all believe that they are the central piece of the plan, the truth is that they all need each other. They also need to get the bosses and investors at Cardiff on their side in order to succeed, which is hard to do after infuriating them. The show demonstrates that for an enterprise to succeed you need to have cooperation between people of varying skill sets and knowledge bases — and between capital and labor.

The series is an exploration of the chaos and creative destruction that goes into the process of innovation. The beginning of the first episode explains the show’s title:

HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF): An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could be regained.

The show takes this theme of racing for superiority to several levels: the characters, the industry, and finally the economy and the world as a whole.

As Gordon himself declares of the cut-throat environment in which computer innovation occurs, “It’s capitalism at its finest!” HFC depicts Randian heroes: businessmen, entrepreneurs, and creators fight against all odds in a race to change the world.

Now into its second season, the show is exploring the beginnings of the internet, and Cameron is running her own start-up company, Mutiny. I could go on about the outstanding production quality, but the real novelty here is a show where capitalists, entrepreneurs, and titans of industry are regarded as heroic.

Halt and Catch Fire is a brilliant show, but it isn’t wildly popular. I fear it may soon be canceled, so be sure to check it out while it’s still around.


Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell is a freelance writer and political commentator.