The recent biopic The Race reminds us of Jesse Owens’ amazing feat in winning a then-record four track gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The movie accurately frames Owens’ (Stephan James) victories as a rebuke to the Nazi propaganda machine, which was trying to use the games to promote the myth of white supremacy. Claims of an Aryan master race were quickly dashed by the actual 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×100 races, and the long jump, all won by Owens. African-American men also won the high jump, the 400-meter and the 800-meter titles at the Berlin Games.
Hitler, famously, did not personally and publicly congratulate Owens, but this snub applied to all of the Olympic champions at the Berlin Games after the second day of competition, regardless of race or nationality. Owens, a staunch Republican, would later note that he was also snubbed by America’s own head of state; Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt did not welcome him to the White House after his Berlin triumph.
It is largely forgotten that on the games’ opening day, the Nazi leader did invite the winning medalists of each of the first three events to his personal box, where he was seen congratulating them. But Hitler pointedly left the stadium immediately before the award ceremony for the day’s final event, the high jump, where all three medalists were American.
Cornelius Johnson of Compton (Calif.) Junior College became the first black athlete to win a gold medal in Berlin. Silver went to Dave Albritton, an Ohio State Buckeye and roommate of Jesse Owens who was also African American. Delos Thurber, of the University of Southern California, who was white, won the bronze. Hitler’s blatant rebuff of the American athletes angered the president of the International Olympic Committee, who demanded the chancellor either congratulate all winners from all nations or none. Hitler chose the second option.
But even less well-known and very rarely seen is the astonishing—especially to 21st-century eyes—protest by Johnson and his fellow medalists in response to this snub. The high jumpers’ protest is certainly not as well known as Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, but its nature and meaning requires a little background and context.
Cornelius Cooper Johnson was born in Los Angeles in August 1913. By the time he entered Los Angeles High School, Corny Johnson was already one of the best high jumpers in California, but he shocked the world of track and field in 1932, while still a junior, by tying for first place at the 1932 U.S. Olympic trials. He then won a jump-off. The Olympics were held in his home city, and Johnson, age 18, was one of only four African-American athletes on the U.S. men’s team. Despite his youth and inexperience, Johnson finished in a four-way tie for first place, clearing 6 feet 5 1⁄2 inches. A jump-off to determine gold, silver and bronze left Johnson in fourth place.
Although both the gold and silver high jump medalists in the 1932 games had attended the nearby University of Southern California, Johnson was not invited to attend USC. The Trojans track team was at that time defiantly lily-white. Instead he matriculated at the much-less-fancied Compton Junior College, winning the national outdoor Amateur Athletic Union high jump title in his freshman year.
In 1936, at the trials for the Berlin Olympics, Johnson became the first African-American high jumper to set a world record, clearing 6 feet 9 3⁄4 inches. Johnson was still being interviewed on the radio about his great jump when Albritton matched the same mark a few minutes later. A New York Times sports reporter, Arthur Daley, confidently predicted that the “lanky” Johnson, “one of the greatest jumpers of all time” and unbeaten since the 1932 Olympics, was the favorite for gold.
In Berlin, the high jump was scheduled for Aug. 2, the first day of track and field competition at the Olympic Stadium. Reports of the games suggest that most of the 100,000 crowd, including Hitler in his box, paid most attention to the victories by the host nation in the women’s javelin and the men’s shot put, and by Finland’s 1, 2, 3 in the 10,000 meters. Hitler could be seen to be clearly delighted by such “Aryan” victories—the Finns were even blonder and more blue-eyed than the Germans. Only the rousing cheers from the crowd as Jesse Owens won his 100-meter heat appeared to disturb Hitler’s buoyant mood as the day’s events drew to a close.