It has been up to black American athletes to transfer the aspirations of black people from generation to generation.Jesse Owens was on the cutting edge of social gains and his visibility amplified the opinions of the rest of the world about us.
Mr. Owens handled the transfer about as well as anyone. Only Jackie Robinson has a more difficult task. Whereas Mr. Owens' exploits came before World War II, Robinson's iron discipline served us well in the post-war years when black expectations ran at feverish levels.
I met Mr. Owens only twice.
In our first meeting, I asked him how he felt when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during an awards ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. His reply was quick, emotional and authoritative: "I didn't like it -- at all."
And therein lay the source of much self-grief, doubt and -- most distressing of all -- criticism from so-called black militants. Though I didn't react to the raised fists as Owens did, I, too, was attacked by many of the same people who criticized Owens. But I suspect the cries of "Uncle Tom" pained him more than me.
I always thought it grossly unfair to be forced to shoulder these unsolicited burdens. And why was the criticism so caustic if we stumbled in the eye of our critics?
With few exceptions, black athletes are not equipped to run as did Mr. Owens or think as does Thurgood Marshall. Mickey Mantle, after all, was no Felix Frankfurter.
Two years after the '68 summer Olympics, Mr. Owens wrote "Black-think."
In it was outlined the classically interpreted "gradualist" approach to racial equality for black people as he saw it. This method espoused the inch-by-inch philosophy and decried the all-or-nothing militancy of black radicals. But he was 57 years old at the time.
Mr. Owens realized that he had to change, perhaps to look at things differently. It is to his credit that he listened to Harry Edwards, the organizer of the black-gloved demonstrations at Mexico City. Edwards and others explained that things were different for blacks, the pot larger than ever before.
Piecemeal approaches to black equality of opportunity were no longer relevant and would not be tolerated. A new era had been ushered in by civil rights legislation and the disproportionate black deaths in Vietnam.
So Mr. Owens became a "born-again Afro-American" at the age of 60. He went from being a Negro to being black. He celebrated his "rites of passage" in another book, "I Have Changed." The book was not a confessional. It merely showcased Jesse Owens, the new and revised edition. c
The office of "famous black athletes" is neither elective nor appointed. It is attained through talent, training and tenacity. Mr. Owens had talent to spare. Sports historians still talk about May 25, 1935. That afternoon, at the University of Michigan, Owens, as a member of the Ohio State track team, broke three world records and equaled a fourth.
This Big Ten meet began for him at 3:15 p.m. He ran the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds to equal the world record. At 3:27 p.m., on his only attempt, he set a world record in the broad jump (not the long jump) of 26 feet 8 1/4 inches. This record remained for a quarter of a century.
At 3:42 p.m. he ran the 220-yard dash in 20.3 seconds, another world record. Then at 3:56 p.m. he set a world record in the 220-yard low hurdles. His time was 22.6 seconds. Tug Wilson, then the Big Ten commissioner, said Owens was just a "floating wonder."
After the '36 Berlin Olympics in which he won three individual gold medals and one gold medal in the 400-meter relay, he returned to "life as usual" in the United States.
"I came back to my native country and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?"
Mr. Owens did make a difference. Like Joe Louis, he remained an enduring hero to his generation of black America. He suffered indignities from white Americans in the '30s, '40s and '50s. Then from some black Americans in the '60s.
I am grieved by his passing, but proud of the adjustments he made in the 1970s. His doctor, Steve Jones of the University of Arizona, said, "Mr. Owens remained remarkably optimistic," knowing full well that the clock was running out.
If today's young black athletes do half as well as Jesse Owens, we'll all be fine.