In May 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler came to power, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 1936 Summer Olympics to Berlin. Soon after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, however, the United States and other western democracies began to question the morality of supporting an Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime.1
Responding to reports of the persecution of Jewish athletes, Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee, initially considered withdrawing the United States from the Games. After his brief inspection of German sports facilities in 1934, which the Germans managed so tightly that Brundage could not speak to Jewish athletes without Nazi officials present, Brundage announced that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly. The IOC obtained a pledge from the Germans in June 1933 that it would abide by the Olympic charter which banned all discrimination in sport. It was agreed that the Games should go on in Berlin as planned.
Many American newspaper editors and anti-Nazi groups, led by the president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), called for a boycott of the Games. Most African American newspapers opposed boycotting the Games. Writers for the Philadelphia Tribune and the Chicago Defender argued that victories by black athletes would undermine racism and the myth of "Aryan supremacy." They hoped such victories would foster a sense of pride at home. The Chicago Defender reported that African American track stars such as Eulace Peacock, Jesse Owens, and Ralph Metcalfe favored participation because they felt their victories would help disprove Nazi racial theories.2
Others argued that the Olympics would afford African Americans unprecedented opportunities for advancement. In the 1930s, "Jim Crow"3 laws legalized discrimination against non-whites in most areas of American life. African Americans were barred from many public places, hotels, restaurants, and other facilities. In the South especially, non-whites lived in fear of racially-motivated violence. Until 1945, the armed forces of the United States remained segregated by race.4 With the exception of boxing, both college and professional sports were segregated and equal training opportunities for African American athletes were extremely limited.
The boycott debate divided African American communities. This editorial by Baptist pastor and Harlem civil rights activist Adam Clayton Powell Jr., published in the oldest African American newspaper in the country, the powerful New York Amsterdam News, lays out reasons for opposition to participation in the Berlin Olympics, arguing that there was more at stake for African Americans than the glory of sports. What was at stake, Powell argued in the Amsterdam News segment "The Soapbox," was any chance of achieving real equality.
In the end, the boycott failed. Brundage maneuvered the AAU to a close vote in favor of sending an American team to Berlin. With 312 members, the United States fielded the second-largest team, including 18 African Americans who won 14 of America’s 56 medals.5 While athletes such as Jesse Owens were idolized by sports fans and lionized by the American press, participation in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin did little to change the day-to-day conditions of life for African Americans.