The 1936 Berlin Olympics was supposed to be a world showcase for Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany’s belief that the strength of the Aryan race could not be matched by anyone else.
But African-American and U.S. athlete Jesse Owens, rising above racial tensions in his home country, claimed four gold medals in track and field and achieved a legacy that continues today.
What’s not as well-known is that there were 17 other American black athletes, including two women, competing at the 1936 Olympic Games. They defied calls for boycotts from a country that treated them as second-class citizens so they could compete on the world stage.
“It’s really a fascinating story. It’s a complicated story,” said Debora Riley Draper of Atlanta, director of the feature-length documentary “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” screening at this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Actor Blair Underwood is the narrator.
The documentary screening is one in a record number 202 screenings, including 75 films from 24 countries at multiple venues in Atlanta, presented in the 17th year of the film festival.
Draper said she was researching Valaida Snow, a trumpet player from Chattanooga, Tenn., who ended up in a Nazi concentration camp after being arrested in 1941 in Denmark while touring with an all-female band. And in that research, she learned that 18 African American athletes competed in the Berlin Olympics.
“I only knew about Jesse Owens,” Draper said, “and learned that the stories of the other athletes, including these two women, all went into obscurity.”
It was known that Hitler did not want any African Americans competing in his Olympics, and the black athletes faced fierce opposition from their peers and others in the U.S. to boycott the games or face the idea they would be supporting Hitler’s tyranny by competing.
But at the time, a federal anti-lynching bill was sitting on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desk with no real chance of it being signed and black people were forced to deal with violent Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation, including separate restrooms and water fountains for black and white people and forcing black people to sit in the back of the bus. Racism within law enforcement was rampant as well.
“This was an interesting time and African Americans were trying to figure out how to exist,” Draper said.
“In America where they lived, the black athletes couldn’t get their own country to recognize them as American citizens,” she said. “For them to get on a boat [to go to Germany] with USA on their backs was a political statement.”
The athletes, she said, were willing to compete, and win, for a country that did not love them.
“That took courage,” Draper said. “The unbelievable strength, and this perseverance, this fearlessness, and the ability to do the right thing.”
Draper said the conversations 80 years ago are very similar to conversations people are having today about race and protests. When she began the documentary, people were talking about the shootings of unarmed black teens Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
In the NFL, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick made waves when he chose to take a knee during the National Anthem as a silent protest to America’s treatment of black people.
“These are all conversations about patriotism, the rights and freedoms people have,” Draper said.
The 18 African-American athletes who competed in Berlin were not condoning Hitler or Nazism, Draper said, because they were not the policy makers. They were athletes. But sports can bring visibility to political issues, and, by winning, the African Americans very publicly showed the world that the Nazi principle that Aryans were the best athletes was simply wrong.
Ben Johnson, the American sprinter considered the most serious rival to Jesse Owens, was unable to compete in the 1936 Olympics due to an injury. He said at the time, “I don’t stand for tyranny in any country including America,” Draper said.
“The athletes wanted to compete. They had a lot to prove as African Americans regardless of their country’s policies,” she said.
“If they won, it certainly takes down the Aryan supremacy business and it furthers the cause of taking down Jim Crow,” she said. “Sports are visible. And being able to be visible encourages the next generation.”
Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
Jan. 24-Feb. 15
For a full film schedule, see ajff.org.
Screenings for ‘Olympic Pride, American Prejudice’
Jan. 27 at UA Tara Cinemas at 2:55 p.m.
Feb. 5 at Lefont Sandy Springs at 4:15 p.m., including appearance by director Deborah Riley Draper
Feb. 9 at Regal Atlantic Station at 7:50 p.m.