“Tell him how things can be between men on this earth,” Luz Long.
James Cleveland “J.C.” Owens was born September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers. They had 10 children; Jesse was the youngest. When Jesse was nine years old the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. When enrolling in school he told his teacher his name was J.C.; the teacher misunderstood and called him Jesse. For the rest of his life he was known as Jesse.
His passion for running was noticed by the high school track coach Charles Riley who trained and encouraged him in Track and Field. Throughout his life Jesse would credit him for the successes in his athletic career.
Jesse’s talents and successes in high school Track and Field were noted by several universities. He chose to attend Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. It was there that another coach, Larry Snyder, would take Jesse “under his wing” and encouraged his Track and field abilities that would qualify him as a member of the 1936 United States (US) Olympic Track and Field team.
More than 300 members of the US Olympic team sailed from New York City, New York, to Germany on July 15, 1936, on the Steamship (SS) Manhattan.
The XI Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, began on August 1 with the opening ceremony attended by Chancellor Adolph Hitler. After the parade of nations into the Berlin Olympic Stadium a runner carrying the Olympic torch ran into the stadium and up the steps to a caldron which would burn the Olympic flame until the completion of the games. Hitler then declared the games open.
The torch relay of the Olympic flame from Greece to the Olympic Games host country began with the 1936 Berlin Olympics and continues to this day.
The Nazi government used the technology of early television for limited broadcasting of the 1936 Olympics. It is estimated that 150,000 people watched the Olympics in 28 viewing rooms in the Berlin area. The 1936 games were the first to be televised.
Louis Zamperini, an American athlete who ran in the 5,000 meter race, related a humorous incident about the opening ceremonies:
“They released 25,000 pigeons, the sky was clouded with pigeons, the pigeons circled overhead, and then they shot a cannon, and they scared the poop out of the pigeons, and we had straw hats, flat straw hats, and you could heard the pitter-patter on our straw hats, but we felt sorry for the women, for they got it in their hair, but I mean there were a mass of droppings, and I say it was so funny…”
Louis Zamperini would finish 8th in the 5,000 meter race and set a new lap record. He fought in WWII and in 2010 a book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption was published about his life.
Another member of the Track and Field team that year was Matthew MacKenzie “Mack” Robinson. Mack was the older brother of Jackie Robinson who in 1947 was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Mack would win a silver medal in the 200 meters race at the Berlin Olympics; he finished 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens.
[In 1924 Adolf “Adi” and Rudolph Dassler opened the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria, Germany. The company specialized in athletic shoes. Jesse Owens and others wore their athletic shoes during the 1936 Olympic competition.
The brothers joined the Nazi Party in 1933. During the war the factory produced military boots for the German army. In 1944 the shoe factory began manufacturing a lightweight, infantry anti-tank, shoulder-launched weapon nicknamed the “Panzerschreck” (also known as the “Tank Terror”). It proved a deadly weapon against Allied tanks. The development of this weapon was based on the US Army weapon the “bazooka,” nicknamed the “Stovepipe.”
After WWII the two brothers had a disagreement, and each opened their own shoe factory. Adolf Dassler’s company continues today, and the shoes are known as Adidas. Rudolph Dassler’s company shoes are known today as Puma.]
Jesse Owens won four Gold Medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. On August 3 he won the 100 meter race in 10.3 seconds; on August 4 in the long jump competition he jumped 8.06 meters (26 feet 5 inches) to defeat German Carl “Luz” Long; on August 5 he won the 200 meter sprint in 20.7 seconds; and on August 9 Jesse as a member of the 4 x 100 meter relay team won the race in 39.8 seconds.
But three experiences in particular would be remembered in history:
1. Jesse Owens did not fit the Nazi ideology of the superiority of the Aryan “master race” because of his color. Hitler refused to personally congratulate Jesse after his wins, and neither did US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
2. Due to German government pressure, US head coach Lawson Robertson replaced Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the two Jewish members of the 4 x 100 relay team, with Jesse Owens and his teammate Ralph Metcalfe. Jesse objected to this change but was told by coach Robertson to “do as you are told.”
3. Jesse would remember and honor his friendship with his German long jump competitor Luz Long for the rest of his life.
Carl (sometimes spelled Karl) Ludwig “Luz” Long was born April 27, 1913, in Leipzig, Germany. He practiced law in Hamburg, Germany, after graduating from the University of Leipzig. In 1936 he held the European long jump record.
Jesse had fouled twice while attempting to qualify for the long jump event. He had only one attempt left. Luz shared a technique with Jesse that helped him to qualify on his last jump. In the finals of the long jump competition Jesse jumped 8.06 meters to win; Luz finished second with a jump of 7.87 meters. Luz was the first to congratulate him. After the award ceremony (see photo at the top of this story), Jesse and Luz walked arm in arm through the Berlin Olympic Stadium.
Luz Long was sternly spoken to by Nazi Party officials after his time spent with Jesse.
Jesse and Luz became friends at the Olympics and corresponded for years after that. Jesse would say of his Olympic friendship with Luz, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler… You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating for the twenty-four karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”
Luz’s last letter to Jesse in 1942 or 1943, probably written from North Africa where Luz was in the German Wehrmacht, spoke to the friendship they had:
I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father,” Long wrote.
My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.
If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.
That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.
Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.
And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.
I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.
I think I might believe in God.
And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.
Carl “Luz” Long was wounded in Sicily on July 10,1943, during the Allied invasion of Sicily in Operation Husky (July 9 – August 17, 1943). He died on July 14 in a British military hospital there. Luz was buried in Motta St. Anastasia German War Cemetery in Sicily. He was 30 years old.
In 1951 Jesse Owens returned to Germany and was able to find Luz’s son, Karl (called Kai). They would stay in contact, and when Kai got married Jesse was the best man.
Jesse Owens died on March 31,1980, in Tucson, Arizona.
But the story of the friendship between Jesse and Luz has continued on with a friendship built between their families. From August 15 – 23, 2009, the 12th International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championship in Athletics was held in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium where the 1936 Olympics took place. Jesse Owens’ granddaughter Marlene (Owens) Dortch, Luz’s son Karl (Kai), and Luz’s granddaughter Julia represented the Owens and Long families at the August 22 awards presentation to the winner of the long jump.
Jesse and Luz would be proud.
Thank you to Charles Ross for his contribution to this story.
Among the references for this story: the PBS American Experience documentary Jesse Owens, the film RACE, the film The Jesse Owens Story, and a young person’s book Jesse and Luz: A Special Friendship.