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The Modern Civil Rights Movement: An Overview

THE DUSK BEFORE THE DAWN

Throughout the 1936 Summer Olympics, Nazi führer Adolf Hitler cast a watchful eye, hoping that the competition held in Berlin, Germany's capital, would lend prestige and legitimacy to the Third Reich and his philosophy of Aryan supremacy. German athletes performed admirably; yet, much to Hitler's dismay, the games belonged to Jesse Owens, an African American track and field star from Oakville, Alabama, who ran and jumped to four gold medals, three individual and one team. Two years later, Joe Louis, another Alabama native, the first African American heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson, successfully defended his title by knocking out Max Schmelling, a German, in the first round of a scheduled ten-round bout before a capacity crowd at Yankee Stadium in New York City. In both cases, white Americans cheered on the victors, suggesting that at least in the international sports arena color mattered less than nationality. African Americans, however, cheered even louder. For them, Owens and Louis were more than champion athletes; they stood as symbols of the cause of racial equality. As the Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson, onetime presidential candidate and protégé of Martin Luther King, Jr., stated in his eulogy for Louis in Las Vegas on April 17, 1981, "With Joe Louis we had made it from the guttermost to the uttermost, from slave ship to championship. . . . He was the answer to the sincere prayers of the disinherited and the dispossessed. Joe made everybody somebody. . . . Something on the inside said we ought to be free; something on the outside said we can be free."1

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