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Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: Editorial on the 1936 Olympics

New York Amsterdam News Editorial
New York Amsterdam News

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.

Avery Brundage, the president of the American Olympic Committee, initially considered withdrawing the United States from the Olympic Games because of reports of Nazi persecution of German Jewish athletes. In 1934, Brundage made a brief inspection of German sports facilities. German authorities managed the inspection tour so tightly that Brundage was not able to speak to Jewish athletes without Nazi officials present. Afterward, Brundage announced that Jewish athletes were being treated fairly. The IOC obtained a pledge from the Nazi regime in June 1933, promising to abide by the Olympic charter banning all discrimination in sport. It was agreed that the Olympic Games should go forward in Berlin as planned.

 

For more on Americans' attitudes and responses to the Nazi threat, see the online exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust.

The Chicago Defender, December 14, 1935, 14. See USHMM's citizen history project, History Unfolded, to explore more Americans' reactions as printed in newspapers around the country.

"Jim Crow" refers to a legal system designed to create and sustain racial hierarchy in United States society. For more information, see the Jim Crow Museum website.

To learn more, see the related item in this collection, Oral History with Leon Bass.

To learn more about Adam Clayton Powell Jr., see Robert M. Lichtman, Barred by Congress: How a Mormon, a Socialist, and an African American Elected by the People Were Excluded from Office (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2022); and Louis Porter II, "An Unlikely Alliance: Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Seeds of Transformation," Cross Currents 64, no. 1, (2014): 116-122. 

For more on the 1936 Olympics, see Susan D. Bachrach, The Nazi Olympics: Berlin 1936 (Little, Brown, & Company, 2000).

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
New York Amsterdam News
Date Created
May 2, 1936
Page(s) 12
Author / Creator
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Language(s)
English
Location
New York, USA
Document Type Newspaper Article
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