Marlene Dortch always knew that the story of Jesse Owens went far beyond her grandfather’s ability to win four gold medals and upstage Adolf Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The movie that now chronicles his life — “Race” — tells the world of how Owens overcame poverty and being a minority in the United States to become a track star for Ohio State in the 1930s. It also puts a focus on his relationship with German sprinter and long jump champion Luz Long, who put aside his allegiance to Hitler by befriending Owens and offering him advice during the qualifying rounds of that controversial Olympics in Germany.
Although historians debate how much Long helped Owens, the movie shows Long placing a towel a few inches ahead of the jumping point during the long jump — indicating that Owens didn’t need to risk a disqualifying foul because he could easily jump a distance that would get him into the finals — helping Owens advance and eventually win the gold medal in front of Hitler.
“There was all of this politics swirling around them, but both men competed to the best of their ability on the greatest stage in the world,” said Dortch, a resident of Fort Washington, Md., who answered questions about her grandfather’s legacy during a forum and movie screening Saturday night in Bowie, an event hosted by the Prince George’s County chapter of Jack and Jill of America. Dortch, a lawyer, has been secretary of the Federal Communications Commission since 2002.
Jack and Jill was founded in 1938 by 21 mothers who were determined to create a better life for their children. According to Anissa Wilson, the chapter’s president, learning about African American pioneers such as Owens is a critical Black History Month lesson.
“This is an awesome opportunity that we have a legacy right here in Prince George’s County as we celebrate Black History Month,” Wilson said.
Dianne Braddock — whose younger sister, Carole Robertson, was one of four girls killed in the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church — attended the screening and said such remembrances are key to understanding the civil rights movement. “What happened to my sister and the other girls was history, and their deaths brought change in American society,” Braddock said. “What Jesse Owens did was to bring about change in the way people thought about black people.”
Long earned the Silver Medal in the Olympics and became a lawyer, but he was drafted as a Nazi soldier and was sent to the front lines of World War II.
Shortly before deploying to battle in 1942, Long wrote a letter to Owens. “My heart is telling me that this is perhaps the last letter of my life,” he wrote, according to his biography. “If that is so, I beg one thing, that when the war is over you go to Germany, find my son and tell him about the times when war didn’t separate us and tell him that things can be different.”
Long died of his injuries in a British hospital after the Allied Forces invaded Sicily in 1943.
In 1951, Owens went to Germany and met Kai Long, Luz’s son, and in 2009, Dortch and other members of the Owens family joined the Long family at the Berlin stadium to present medals in the long jump at the Track and Field World Championships.
“The relationship that developed between those two families is what God expects of all mankind,” said Byron Green, who with his wife, Ernestine, saw the movie Friday night at a viewing in Alexandria.
Dortch said that her grandfather and grandmother were examples of how to face challenges.
“Even though he faced obstacles,” Dortch said of her grandfather, “he didn’t let adversity change who he was.” She added: “The young lady who portrayed my grandmother captured the essence of her elegance. She was beautiful, and she was strong.”