A street scene showing displays of the Olympic and German (swastika) flags in Berlin, site of the summer Olympic Games. Berlin, Germany, August 1936.
DIZ Muenchen GMBH, Sueddeutscher Verlag Bilderdienst
After concerns about the safety of black athletes in Nazi Germany were put to rest by the International Olympic Committee, most African American newspapers opposed boycotting the 1936 Olympic Games. Writers for such papers as the Philadelphia Tribune and the Chicago Defender argued that victories by black athletes would undermine racism and the emphasis on "Aryan" supremacy found in Nazi racial views. They also hoped that such victories would foster a new sense of black pride at home. The Chicago Defender reported, on December 14, 1935, that African American track stars Eulace Peacock, Jesse Owens, and Ralph Metcalfe favored participating in the Olympics because they felt that their victories would serve to repudiate Nazi racial theories.
In 1936 a large number of black athetes were Olympic contenders, and in the end, 18 African Americans -- 16 men and 2 women -- went to Berlin. This was three times the number who had competed in the 1932 Los Angeles games.
For these black athletes, the Olympics provided a special opportunity. In the 1930s, blacks suffered discrimination in most areas of American life. "Jim Crow" laws, designed by whites to keep blacks powerless and segregated, barred African Americans from many jobs and from entering public places such as restaurants, hotels, and other facilities. In the South especially, blacks lived in fear of racially motivated violence. The United States military was still segregated during World War II.
In the area of sports, opportunities for blacks were limited at both the college and professional levels. Black journalists criticized supporters of the Olympic boycott for talking so much about discrimination against athletes in foreign lands but not addressing the problem of discrimination against athletes at home. Pointing out that all the black Olympians came from northern universities that served mostly white students, they said that this showed the inferiority of training equipment and facilities at traditionally black colleges, where most African American students were educated in the 1930s.
The African American athletes who competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin won 14 medals. The continuing social and economic discrimination black athletes faced after returning to the United States emphasized the irony of their victory in racist Germany.
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