WASHINGTON — Shortly after Jesse Owens returned home from his snubbing by Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics, he and America’s 17 other black Olympians found a less-than-welcoming reception from their own government, as well.
On Thursday, relatives of those 1936 African-American Olympians will be welcomed to the White House and will get to shake the president’s hand — an honor Owens and the others didn’t receive, the way some of their white counterparts did, after they returned home from Berlin 80 years ago.
U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun announced the visit Wednesday night at a Team USA Awards ceremony.
“That is why I’m here 80 years later, to recognize the senselessness (of not inviting them to the White House), and to pay tribute to all the progress that has come since,” Blackmun said.
The announcement came on the same night the USOC invited Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were booted from the 1968 Olympics for their gloved-fist protest on the medals stand, to be part of the awards show. Smith and Carlos hadn’t been involved in an official USOC event since being sent home from Mexico City. The gold- and bronze-medal-winning sprinters will be at the White House on Thursday, as well.
At the 1936 Olympics , Owens won four gold medals, but it was the message Owens’ victories sent by winning in Nazi Germany and undercutting Hitler’s white-supremacy dogma that stood as the lasting memory of those games.
Owens returned to a segregated America where he had trouble finding steady work and where, according to his interviews in later years, the president, Franklin Roosevelt, never sent him any words of congratulations or an invitation to the White House.
Decades later, Owens was acknowledged and honored at the White House. In 1976, President Gerald Ford presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The stories of the other 17 blacks on that team were less-widely known. Thursday’s event was meant to give a long-overdue White House recognition to those athletes, who accounted for 14 of America’s 56 medals in Berlin.
Owens’ daughter, Marlene Owens-Rankin, will be among the relatives at the White House.
“To be able to go to the White House 80 years later with Barack Obama as president and also with the other 1936 Olympians that really didn’t get the exposure that my grandfather did, for various reasons, I think it would make him so happy,” said Owens’ granddaughter, Marlene Dortch.