I was reminded of this essay earlier this week when I got involved in an internet controversy about Jesse Owens. It's Black History Month, and a black facebook friend of mine reposted, without comment, the following picture and caption.
"Hitler didn't snub me; it was our president [FDR] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send a telegram." — Jesse Owens after winning FOUR GOLD medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. FDR invited each white US olympian to the White House, but not Jesse. #BHM#BlackHistoryIsActualAmericanHistory
Now, whenever I see a fact, my brain scrolls through other pertinent facts to tell me if, and how, it fits. The detail about the supposed Olympic team visit to the White House that excluded black athletes (who had won a number of medals in both the 1932 and 1936 Olympics) simply did not ring true to me. Fortunately, I have the Proquest data base, which includes at least a dozen major newspapers and several important black newspapers from the 1930s, close at hand. I did a couple of quick searches. Sure enough, I found no mention whatever, anywhere, of any meeting at the White House between President Franklin Roosevelt and members of the US Olympic team. Not only did I point this out to my friend, but I also went to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice site--as you can, by clicking above--and made the following post. (My post and the firestorm it ignited can both be read by clicking the above link.)
"I am an historian. I have written about FDR. This story did not strike me as plausible. I decided to do some research myself.
I used the Proquest data base, which includes the archives of many major newspapers, including several black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender. I could not find any evidence that ANY American Olympic athletes visited the White House after ( or before) the Berlin Olympics in 1936. There is no mention of any such meeting anywhere in the database.
I challenge anyone to produce a contemporary source that validates this story."
Here are some of the comments that were posted in response.
"So the totality of America's racist history isn't enough to make this story plausible to you?" (This poster--let's call her poster A--promptly posted three recent links that repeated the story. "There are at least 20 more similar texts that come from a very simple Google search," she continued, and added revealingly, "Challenging people to prove racism is racist as hell, dude."
"David Kaiser , why is it so hard to believe? You do realize America was very segregated and even a liberal politician like FDR would still follow the social norms of the time! Now I will say Eleanor was very forward leaning and I have seen pictures of her with African Americans. Our nation has a very racist and bigoted history so I am never surprised by any such factoid! Seems like these roots have not disappeared into the 21st century! I pray we can move beyond racial animosity, KKK, Neo-Nazis, and every other hate group that threatens the future of our children and grandkids.."
"Any idea how racist your challenge sounds? Asking for a friend."
"David Kaiser is missing y’all. He’s somewhere in his white feelings cuz 'the blacks' showed him facts that his precious FDR was a coward and a racist "
At least three people either said they would welcome more information from me, or at least showed an understanding of what I had said. One wrote to Poster A: "he’s asking for articles from that time period. Not 2016." To which she replied: "why in the world would an article from that time period be discussing America's racism??? If white people today, in 2019, still think racism needs to be proved, then why would the press have been discussing this back in 1936? Sometimes the truth about the past is only revealed with a modern perspective, which is something any decent historian would understand."
"At the time the press wasn't discussing sending Native children to abusive residential schools, or using Black Tuskegee airmen as medical test subjects either, but we all know NOW that those things undeniably happened."That one drew 8 likes.
To this I replied: "I want to thank [Poster A] for stating so clearly the 'historical principles' that so many people now accept as real.
"1. American racism is so pervasive that any story documenting it must be true.
"2. If people repeat a story enough times, then it will become true.
"3. White people have no right to question stories of racism.
"Yes, you posted three links. All of them repeat the same story. But none of them is a contemporary primary source. Somehow that story got going and it has been kept going because people want to believe it. But no one has produced evidence for it from that time.
Some one said that it would be foolish to expect an article from 1936 to mention racism. But as I pointed out, the Proquest database that I used includes black papers like the Chicago Defender, and they most certainly would have mentioned it. And white papers--such as the Washington Post--would, it seems to me, have mentioned a White House event at which the President entertained the Olympic team. But there are no such stories.
"Show me a story from 1936 that details the meeting that supposedly took place without Owens, and I'll believe it.
"I appreciate that three people, anyway, were willing to indicate that they liked my comment. Don't worry, you won't have to worry about me weighing in here much more--I found my way here by accident after a facebook friend posted this item. For the record, truth does exist and it's generally recorded in primary sources. Of course, it's much easier to assume that a few 'sound opinions' can be used to explain anything." That drew 9 likes.
"Go away, David Kaiser. Using all those words and still not saying anything substantial," poster A replied.
The discussion continued. "The very premise that these "white" people who are disputing the very racism(systematically/institutionally/individual) that they keep attempting to place "distance" between their actions and their "whiteness", is a prime example of the level of deceitfulness and manipulation that they employ in order to make it appear that their systematic pathological psychotic behavior is "normative" even though the deceitful nature of their behavior sticks out like a "sore thumb" --- they continue to forward extremely implausible scenarios in order to justify their well documented historical evil behavior. . . .The 'white' man REALLY needs to check his EGO at the door." a poster wrote. Another wrote: "Yea, bc the white journalist would definitely out the president for being racist against the BLACK Olympic Gold medal winner during their racist and segregated day-to- day way of existing... And sure, the black journalist could do the same without being hanged for expressing so! Get your RACIST ass out of here mr historian with your white washed information."
I then decided to quote a favorite Chicago Defender editorial of mine from 1940, in which the paper endorsed FDR because he was the friend of the average person and the foe of the very wealthy. That drew an obscene response. (Again, the whole exchange can be read at the link above.)
The story still didn't completely add up to me. Wikipedia both printed and attributed the "Hitler didn't snub me, FDR snubbed me," quote. It came from a book on Owens and the 1936 Olympics by one Jeremy Schaap, readily available at a local library. That's where I got quite a shock.
I had been reading about Jesse Owens since the 1950s and I remember a documentary that he narrated himself about his life in, I believe, the 1970s, probably on PBS. It concluded with a story of a parade he was in when he returned from Germany during which some one handed him a package with $10,000 [sic] it, which he said came in very handy to his family. I knew too that in later years he had had some tough times earning a living, and I remember that in 1968 he spoke out against Harry Edwards' campaign to have black athletes boycott the Olympics. (It just occurred to me that that might explain why Edwards appears to validate the false story of the segregated Olympic team visit to the White House in one web story.) But I didn't know about something else that Owens had done during 1936 which was quite interesting.
The American black community was at a political crossroads in 1936. Those who could vote had loyally supported the Republicans--the party of Lincoln--since the civil war, for the most part, but the economic help that the New Deal had provided to black and white Americans during FDR's first term had won many of them over to his side. Jesse Owens, however, was not one of them. He went on a campaign tour for the Republican candidate, Alf Landon. It was during a campaign speech for Landon that Owens said, "Hitler didn't snub me--it was our President who snubbed me. The President didn't even send me a telegram." According to the black Pittsburgh Courier on October 10, 1936, what Owens said in a Baltimore speech on October 8 was, "The President didn't even send me a message of congratulations after my victories. Gov. Landon, however, was very considerate and wired me a message of congratulation."
A week later, on October 17, an unsigned editorial in the Courier read as follows:
OWENS WAS "SNUBBED"
And because President did not send him a special telegram of congratulations, Mr. Owens says he is going to vote for Governor Landon, who allegedly did send him such a telegram.
This Is the first we have heard of the Landon telegram. It would have been real news at the time the races were run and won.and it is strange that no mention of such a telegram from the Kansas governor appeared in the newspapers.
Many a great decision has hinged upon a mere piece of I paper, but this ls probably the first time that such a momentous decision has been reached because of failure to receive a congratulatory telegram. · It would be strange, indeed if Mr. Roosevelt should be defeated by the one ballot of Mr. Jesse Owens. , ·
In fact, Mr. Roosevelt may lose the vies of all other American Olympic champions if they also feel that they were "snubbed." It happens that dozens of young Amerlcan athletes won· honors at the Berlin games, but not one received a telegram of congratulations from President Roosevelt.. · - ·
If any of our Olympic champions had received.such a telegram from the President of the United States, it would have been the first of Its kind ever sent in the history of this country. And under . the circumstances, one wonders. just why Mr. Jesse Owens should feel.so injured. .
Is it possible .that the Republican campaign fund had anything to do with the momentous decision of Mr. .Jesse Owens? Or is our Jessie really just whooping for .Landon on account of a telegram?
Perhaps-we shall find out after election day.
On November 11, after Roosevelt had defeated Landon by one of the most crushing margins in history, a brief item in the black Atlanta Daily World (p. 5) gave answers to this question. "Reports differ on what Jesse Owens got for campaigning for Landon and Knox," it said. "The Journal and Guide says $15,000 but the Afro-American suggests $30,000." Four years later, Walter White, the general secretary of the NAACP, told Interior Secretary Harold Ickes that the Republicans in the 1940 campaign had told him to name his price for his endorsement of their candidate Wendell Willkie. White had declined the offer.
Owens himself, who had lost his amateur status after signing a professional contract, said on November 20, as reported in the next day's Boston Globe,, that he had "earned about $50,000" since returning from Germany and that he would be going to Hollywood to make at least one film rather than returning to Ohio State to get his degree. In the same month, he bought his parents an eleven-room house in Cleveland. He was also voted the athlete of the year.
No one should begrudge Jesse Owens or any other American the right to campaign for the candidate of his choice, and I was glad to find that he had indeed secured important financial rewards as a result of his great triumphs in Berlin. My quarrel is not with him, obviously, but with the world view that I encountered among some--far from all--of my black fellow citizens when I had the temerity to question a false story about a meeting at the White House that he could not attend.
We live in an age of nationalism, as defined by Orwell, in which activists from different demographics, and activists with different views, live in alternative realities. Those realities are refined and spread in many media outlets, in many university departments, and on facebook and other social media. There is no difference in principle between what I encountered on the New Jersey institute site and what one can hear from Limbaugh and Hannity every day, or what I read in the Boston Globe twice weekly from columnist Renee Graham. Unfortunately, the proliferation of such views, which proclaim certain demographics or political parties to be good or evil in themselves and tailor their facts accordingly, is making it impossible for our democracy to function. We all need to understand our common humanity--which is another way of saying that none of us has a monopoly on either virtue or vice.