In May 1931—nearly two years before Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany—the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. Soon after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, the United States and other Western democracies began to question the morality of supporting an Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime.1
Many American newspaper editors and anti-Nazi groups called for a boycott of the 1936 Olympic Games.2 Most Black newspapers opposed boycotting them. Writers for the Philadelphia Tribune and the Chicago Defender argued that victories by Black athletes would shatter the Nazi myth of "Aryan supremacy." The Chicago Defender reported that Black track stars such as Eulace Peacock, Jesse Owens, and Ralph Metcalfe favored participation because they felt their victories would help disprove Nazi racial theories.3
Others argued that the Olympics would give Black Americans unprecedented opportunities to compete in racially integrated sports. In the 1930s, "Jim Crow"4 laws legalized discrimination against non-white people in most areas of American life. Black people were barred from many public places, hotels, restaurants, and other facilities.5 With the exception of boxing, both college and professional sports were segregated. Opportunities for Black athletes to train and compete in organized sports were extremely limited.
The boycott debate divided Black communities in the US. The featured editorial by Baptist pastor and Harlem civil rights activist Adam Clayton Powell Jr.6 was published in the oldest Black newspaper in the country—the powerful New York Amsterdam News. Powell's editorial outlines his opposition to US participation in the 1936 Olympic Games in moral and religious terms. Powell invokes the "militancy of Jesus" as he urges Black Americans and Christians everywhere "to actively resist the onslaught of Nazism."
In the end, the boycott failed and an American team competed in the Olympic Games in Berlin. With 312 members, the United States had the second-largest team, including 18 Black athletes who won 14 of America’s 56 medals.7 Black athletes such as Jesse Owens were idolized by sports fans and lionized by the American press, but participation in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin did little to change the day-to-day conditions of life for Black Americans.