An Olympian Effort: The Story of Jesse Owens in Library of Congress Primary Sources

The opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics is just around the corner. How will you include primary sources about the Olympics in your classroom?

One way is to highlight a historic Olympian in lessons.

The 1936 Olympics were in Berlin, Germany, during the rule of Adolf Hitler. Hitler hoped to use the Olympics to show the superior prowess of the German athletes. He wanted to deny Jewish and black athletes the right to participate in the Olympics.

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens was a successful track and field athlete at Ohio State University and held several world records. He, along with several other African-American athletes, was selected for the United States Olympic team. Though the International Olympic Committee finally forced the Germans to allow all those who were qualified to participate, many in the United States suggested that Owens and other athletes should boycott the games.

Walter White, the director of the NAACP, was one of those who spoke out against Owens’ participation. In a 1936 letter that was never sent to Owens, White wrote that, “It is my firm conviction that the issue of participation in the 1936 Olympics, if held in Germany under the present regime, transcends all other issues. Participation by American athletes, and especially by those of our own race which has suffered more than any other from American race hatred, would, I firmly believe, do irreparable harm.”

Letter from Walter White to Jesse Owens 12/4/1935

A life history written as part of the Federal Writer’s Project quotes Owens as responding to critics, “After all, since we are all Americans, Negroes should have a chance in every sport. Certainly the showing of Negroes in track events shows that if they have half a chance, they produce the goods”.

Jesse Owens won four Olympic medals in the 1936 Olympics, confirming that he could “produce the goods.” Others have won as many medals, but few experienced the kind of pressure Owens did.

  • Have students debate whether Jesse Owens should have gone to the Olympics. One side can represent Owens and the other side Walter White. What reasons would they use to defend their point of view?
  • Have students consider what the reaction would have been if Owens had not won any medals. Would that have strengthened White’s argument that Owens should not have gone?
  • Ask students why they think Walter White never sent the letter? What do they think would have happened if White had sent the letter?
  • Students can compare Owens’ life history  with another life history from the project. Do they notice any similarities or differences with other interviews from the collection? What more do they want to know after reading Owens’ life history?

For even more information about the Olympics you can read the Library of Congress blog , the Poetry and Literature blog and the blogs from the Prints and Photographs, Law, Performing Arts and Science reading rooms. These may lead you to even more ideas on how to feature the Olympics in classroom activities.

What resources do you use to help students learn about the Olympics and their impact in history?

7 Comments

  1. Carol Ness
    July 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    So my question is – does the LOC information include how America treated Jesse Owens on his return – unable to find work, having to take a job racing against a horse (yes, a horse) to make money. In a recent program about Jesse Owens, it was very, very sad to see how his own country treated him, not only how Adolf Hitler treated him at the 1936 Olympics.

    Hopefully teachers will probe deeper than the fact that he won 4 gold medals and that he was the fastest runner ever.

  2. A.Prof.MOSSAYYEB SAMANIAN
    July 28, 2012 at 2:46 am

    forlearning about olympian to students or users librarian ,i think it is good method for teaching :first explanation about what,s happened that the greece man thinking for using of sports for to making relevant between countries?one cycle what is signe?why to use only 5 cycle?why to let to sportsman that the sport isn,t their jobs?why professional sportsmans can,t to participant in olympic?these question can to active student for finding good answer and understanding the olympian it isn,t only sport but it is tool for to making relationship between countries and show other population countriy,s ceremony and countriy,s culturation .
    you can discussed about philosophy,s olympian

  3. Danna Bell-Russel
    July 30, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Thank you for your question. The Library does hold newspapers and other materials documenting the life of Jesse Owens, including his experiences after the Olympic Games, but the material has not been digitized due to copyright restrictions. If you are local to Washington, D.C. we encourage you to visit the Library to review these materials and learn more about the life of Jesse Owens.

  4. Rebecca
    April 23, 2014 at 12:22 pm

    Why did Walter White not send the letter?

  5. Danna Bell
    April 30, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    We’re not sure. Staff in the Manuscript Division (where the NAACP papers are held0 may be able to answer your question.

  6. Allisan
    December 4, 2014 at 9:10 am

    What did Hitler think when he saw Jesse Owens racing? Did he know about the letter that Walter White wrote?

  7. Danna Bell
    December 4, 2014 at 9:39 am

    We’re not sure if Hitler saw the letter from Walter White. In terms of what Hitler thought we’re not sure but it’s possible that in books or other materials that document the Nazi regime there may some comments on Hitler’s opinion on Jesse Owens and the other African-American athletes at the Olympics.

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