History, irony and ‘Olympic Pride, American Prejudice’

Nearly everyone who knows much about the history of Olympic sports in the United States has heard of Jesse Owens. Many of them are aware he won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Most of those understand that as an African-American he did so under the glare of Adolf Hitler and Germany’s burgeoning fixation on white supremacy and Nazism, which ultimately created the Holocaust and World War II.

What a great many don’t realize is that Jesse Owens wasn’t the only American to stare down the so-called “master race” at the Berlin Olympics. In all, 18 African-American athletes made the U.S. Olympic team that traveled to Germany — joined by Jewish team members. Most were able to compete, and very successfully — in defiance to Hitler’s Third Reich white Aryan ethos — but the details and bitter ironies of the story have been largely undocumented beyond the heroics of Owens. The Owens story, in fact overshadowed remarkable achievements by other African-American athletes at the games.

Olympic Pride poster

That’s where a documentary produced in 2016, “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” takes over. I was fortunate to be able to watch the film Tuesday night when it was screened at Turner Theater in Schar Hall within Elon University’s School of Communications. It was sponsored by Elon Athletics, Elondocs, African American Studies and Elon’s Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education (CREDE). It was directed by documentary filmmaker and historian Deborah Riley Draper. Dr. Amy Tiemann was executive producer. She is president of Spark Productions in Chapel Hill, which produced the film in association with Coffee Bluff Pictures in Atlanta. Tiemann, whose son is a first year student at Elon, was instrumental in bringing the film to campus and led a post-viewing discussion in Turner Theater with Draper, who appeared via Skype.

Anyone wishing to stream the film may find links to do so here. I strongly encourage it. The straight-forward film is outstanding, rich in detail, commentary without hyperbole and voice recordings of many central figures and interviews with their family members. Blair Underwood is the narrator. Those interviewed on camera to provide perspective include retired Olympic track and field star Carl Lewis; retired basketball hall of famer Isiah Thomas; former U.S. Olympic rower and member of the International Olympic committee, Anita DeFrentz; and sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkley Harry Edwards — a longtime civil rights activist. The visuals are stunning for the time period. Film production was just hitting its stride in 1936 and many people provided personal movies taken at the games. The film “Olympia” by German documentary / propaganda filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl is a tremendous source of visual material essential to the film. It all brings this largely overlooked moment in history to life.

Draper’s outstanding research, perspective and writing is only part of the magic that raises this documentary to a story above the typical sportsdoc.. The story is full of troubling images mixed with triumphant ones as well as bitter ironies. Indeed, there was controversy about whether the African-American athletes should even participate in the games. The NAACP asked for the athletes to boycott the games so as not to legitimize Germany’s master race culture. Pressure from the U.S. Olympic Committee, then headed by suspected Nazi=sympathizer and racist Avery Brundage, forced the team members to participate.

Details further reveal the irony between views in Nazi Germany and the United States in the 1930s. For example, the Olympic Village in Berlin was fully integrated. For African-American athletes segregation was still the rule in many places back in the U.S. And while Hitler did indeed snub Owens after he won the first of his four gold medals, then ignored medal winners throughout the remainder of the games, U.S. African-American Olympic participants were similarly ignored by President Franklin Roosevelt. In fact, the athletes were not acknowledged for their performances in Berlin until President Obama did so in 2016.

The efforts were worth noting much earlier. The U.S. African-American contingent accounted for 14 medals, including eight golds. The entire U.S. team only won 56. Among the medal winners were future U.S. Rep. Ed Metcalfe, gold in the 4 by 100 relay and silver in the 100 meters; Cornelius Johnson, gold in the high jump; Dave Albritton, silver in the high jump, and Delos Thurber, bronze in the high jump; John Woodruff, gold in the 800 meters; Mack Robinson, silver in the 200 meters; Archie Williams, gold in the 400 meters, James LuValle, bronze in the 400 meters Fredrick “Fritz” Pollard, bronze, 100 meter hurdles; and Jack Wilson, silver, boxing.

There are heartbreaking stories, too. African-American women’s track team members Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes, denied a chance to compete at the games in 1932 when they were replaced by white competitors despite making the team, found trouble again in 1936. Pickett broke her foot in the 100 meter hurdles while Stokes was again replaced by a white runner. U.S. boxer Howell King was sent home on a bogus claim of homesickness by the U.S. boxing coach. And two Jewish runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were replaced at the last minute in the four by 100 relay by Owens and Metcalfe.

Draper doesn’t just tell the stories of these men and women from this short period of time, but provides the larger context of their lives after the Olympics — successes and failures. It’s sobering to see that some members of the boxing team simply disappeared, their lives and deaths unknown. All returned to the United States after the Berlin games facing the same struggles with racism and prejudice in their home nation — something that sadly still occurs.

Tuesday night’s presentation at Elon closed with Draper and Tiemann urging the audience to seek out documentary films with Tiemann noting that North Carolina is a hotbed of documentary film-making. That opened the door for Draper to praise Tiemann’s next project, “The Rape of Recy Taylor.” The film, directed by Nancy Buirski, has generated strong reviews in early film festival screenings. Tiemann is again an executive producer. The film chronicles a crucial moment in the battle for civil rights in the Jim Crow era. The incident was referenced by Oprah Winfrey during the Golden Globe Awards in January.

I hope Elon can be in line for an early screening. I’ll be there.

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