2 years prior to Hitler‘s rise to power in 1933, Germany was chosen as host of the 1936 Olympic Games. As the games approached and Hitler’s regime shocked the world, the air was filled with rumours of boycott, both from individual athletes and entire governments. Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP, wrote a letter to Jesse Owens upon hearing of the athlete’s intentions to attend and compete at the event, in an effort to persuade him otherwise. Owens, desperate to compete for his country in spite of its hypocritical stance regarding Hitler’s policies, ignored all calls to boycott the games and went to Berlin. He won four gold medals.
Note: The letter below was never sent. However, it’s my understanding that a near identical copy did reach Owens.
NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE
69 FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK
TELEPHONE ALGONQUIN 4 3551
Official Organ: The Crisis
December 4th 1935
My dear Mr. Owens:
Will you permit me to say that it was with deep regret that I read in the New York press today a statement attributed to you saying that you would participate in the 1936 Olympic games even if they are held in Germany under the Hitler regime. I trust you will not think me unduly officious in expressing the hope that this report is erroneous.
I fully realize how great a sacrifice it will be for you to give up the trip to Europe and to forgo the acclaim which your athletic prowess will unquestionably bring you. I realize equally well how hypocritical it is for certain Americans to point the finger of scorn at any other country for racial or other kind of bigotry.
On the other hand, 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 those of our own race which has suffered more than any other from American race hatred, would, I firmly believe, do irreparable harm. I take the liberty of sending you a copy of the remarks which I made at a meeting here in New York, at Mecca Temple, last evening. This sorry world of ours is apparently becoming in a fumbling way to realize what prejudice against any minority group does not only to other minorities but to the group which is in power. The very preeminence of American Negro athletes gives them an unparalleled opportunity to strike a blow at racial bigotry and to make other minority groups conscious of the sameness of their problems with ours and puts them under the moral obligation to think more clearly and to fight more vigorously against the wrongs from which we Negroes suffer.
But the moral issue involved is, in my opinion, far greater than immediate or future benefit to the Negro as a race. If the Hitlers and the Mussolinis of the world are successful it is inevitable that dictatorships based upon prejudice will spread throughout the world, as indeed they are now spreading. Defeat of dictators before they become too firmly entrenched would, on the other hand, deter nations which through fear or other unworthy emotions are tending towards dictatorships. Let me make this quite concrete. Anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Negro prejudices are growing alarmingly throughout the United States. Should efforts towards recovery fail, there is no telling where America will go. There are some people who believe that a proletarian dictatorship will come. I do not believe this will happen and the course of history clearly indicates that it is not likely to happen. Instead, it is more probable that we would have a fascist dictatorship.
It is also historically true that such reactionary dictatorships pick out the most vulnerable group as its first victims. In the United States it would be the Negro who would be the chief and first sufferer, just as the Jews have been made the scapegoats of Hitlerism in Nazi Germany. Sinclair Lewis, in his last novel, IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, has written what seems to me to be a very sound picture of what may happen.
I have written at greater length than I had intended at the outset. I hope, however, that you will not take offense at my writing you thus frankly with the hope that you will take the high stand that we should rise above personal benefit and help strike a blow at intolerance. I am sure that your stand will be applauded by many people in all parts of the world, as your participation under the present situation in Germany would alienate many high-minded people who are awakening to the dangers of intolerance wherever it raises its head.
Mr. Jesse Owens
Ohio State University