Jesse Owens was a mediocre sprinter, ho-hum hurdler, forgettable long-jumper. After all, hundreds of athletes exceeded his records.
That’s absurd, of course. Sure, countless people have bested Owens’ longest leaps and fastest sprints over the past 80 years.
But that doesn’t dent his standing as the transcendent track star of his era, the black man who destroyed Hitler’s bid to make the 1936 Berlin Olympics a showcase for Aryan superiority.
The only fair way to assess Jesse Owens is in the context of his time and peers. That’s true of all athletes, politicians, artists – indeed, all historical figures.
And that’s why we should deal cautiously with calls to reassess famous Americans by a different standard: our ever-changing modern norms.
Princeton University removed a large dining hall photo of its former president Woodrow Wilson — but kept his name on its famous school of international affairs — after students protested Wilson’s legacy on race.
University of Missouri students have called for removing a campus statue of Thomas Jefferson, calling him a racist. At the University of Texas, some signed a petition to remove a statue of George Washington, noting he owned 400 slaves. And several cities plan to raze statues of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate generals.
These aren’t easy issues. How comfortable can black students at Princeton feel about honoring the segregationist Wilson? Lee’s admirers point to his brilliant military skills, probity and decency. Where to draw the line?
Maybe a “preponderance of virtue” test will work. Jefferson Davis is known almost exclusively for leading the rebellious Confederate government. George Washington owned slaves, yes. But he also provided extraordinary military and political leadership that helped birth our nation, and freed his slaves in his will. So maybe that’s an easy call. Remove Davis’ name from highways and schools, and leave Washington’s intact.
But it quickly gets tougher. A New Orleans lawsuit argues that if its towering statue of Lee comes down, as planned, the city must also raze its iconic statue of Andrew Jackson. The Battle of New Orleans hero and seventh president, after all, owned slaves and drove Indians from their lands. But if New Orleans’ large Jackson statue comes down, what about the one facing the White House?
Let’s slow down. We can judge historic figures’ full records, in the context of their times, without abandoning our values. Wilson biographer Arthur S. Link, for instance, said the 28th president “stood against the cruder demands of the white supremacists,” but his decision to segregate federal workers was “one of the worst blots” on his presidency.
Princeton’s balanced approach to Wilson’s legacy is a reasonable model for others to follow. If not, which historical figures can withstand being judged entirely by modern standards?
Well, if anyone could, it would be Abraham Lincoln, justifiably enshrined in a Greek temple in Washington, right?
But many forget that the Gettysburg Address author also said, “there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” They forget his Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free the nearly half-million slaves in four Union states. The proclamation was a political compromise that applied only to areas “in rebellion.”
History is like that — complex and messy. Pretending it’s easily divided into villains and saints isn’t intellectually honest.
Jesse Owens would howl to see the advantages today’s athletes enjoy. They run on laboratory treadmills as researchers monitor their hearts, lungs and muscles. These scientists (and their computers) then prescribe tailored diets and training regimens. Today’s athletic shoes would astonish Owens.
Who’s better, Mel Ott or Bryce Harper? Don’t ask. We should judge people against their peers, and in their eras.
A recent Washington Post article on Confederate statues said “few would argue” that George Washington’s likenesses “should be removed from public spaces.” Really? It has begun in Austin, and will likely spread.
Perhaps, 20 years from now, Washington’s defenders will convince most Americans he was a “better” slave owner than Jefferson because he didn’t sire children with a slave woman. But sentiment might side with those who say “Slavery is always morally indefensible, end of discussion.”
If so, we’ll have to rename our nation’s capital (and Seattle’s state), find a new face for the dollar bill, and summon wrecking balls to that tall white obelisk near the Lincoln Memorial and White House. Then it will fall, much as Lee’s statue is to fall in New Orleans.
Jesse Owens’ records also fell — quietly, to time’s march. By today’s standards, he’s nobody. And that’s ridiculous.
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Charles Babington covered politics, Congress and the White House for The Washington Post and other media outlets for 24 years.