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“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice”: How 18 Black Olympians Defied Jim Crow & Hitler in 1936

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In Brazil, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has pulled off a historic feat, winning the team gold medal by the widest margin of victory since 1960. The five-member gymnastics team is the most diverse the U.S. has ever sent to the Olympics. Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas are African-American. New Jersey-born Lauren Hernandez is of Puerto Rican descent. Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman are white. But Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Lauren Hernandez are far from the first American Olympians of color to make history. Today we look at a new documentary that looks at the 17 African-American athletes who, along with noted track and fielder Jesse Owens, defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to participate in the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany. Since then, the story of Owens’s four gold medals has dominated the narrative of African-American achievement in the ’36 Games. We speak with Deborah Riley Draper, writer and director of “Olympic Pride, American Prejudice.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the Olympics in Brazil, where the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has pulled off an historic feat, winning the team gold medal by the widest margin of victory since 1960. The Wall Street Journal reports, “There is no historical comparison for this rout that doesn’t cross over into the absurd,” unquote. The five-member gymnastics team is the most diverse the U.S. has ever sent to the Olympics. Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas are African-American. New Jersey-born Lauren Hernandez is of Puerto Rican descent. Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman are white.

AMY GOODMAN: But Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Lauren Hernandez are far from the first American Olympians of color to make history. Today we’re taking a look back at another group of groundbreaking American Olympians. Archie Williams, Tidye Pickett, Ralph Metcalfe, Louise Stokes—you probably don’t know these names, though you should. They’re just some of the African-American athletes who, along with noted track-and-fielder Jesse Owens, defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to participate in the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany. Since then, the story of Owens’s four gold medals has dominated the narrative of African-American achievement in the ’36 Games. But a new documentary tells the story of the 17 other black Olympians, including two women, whose stories have faded into obscurity.

DANIEL DURBIN: This is one of the great tragedies of the story you tell, is you have 17, 18 athletes here who were on the world stage—one of them is remembered.

ANITA DEFRANTZ: By the time ’36 came around, people began to understand who Hitler was and what his goals were.

DEXTER BLACKMAN: Here was an opportunity on the world stage to disprove white supremacy.

JOANNA HAYES: I love my gold medal. But it’s not—in history, it’s not as important as their medals. For me, there’s just something so special about what they did and who they did it in front of.

DANIEL DURBIN: These were athletes who did something really important at a seminal point in human history—not African-American history, not American history, in human history. They did something incredibly important.

UNIDENTIFIED: Simply being on the medal stand in 1936 sent a message.

HARRY EDWARDS: From that struggle for legitimacy became the foundation of the struggle for access, which became integrated into nonviolent direct action and primed the pump for Dr. King.

DANIEL DURBIN: They have stories that have not only drama and drive and power and force, but they’re stories that can focus us again on something truly important about the human spirit, about the human race and what it takes to be truly human and not inhuman.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s from the trailer of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, which just opened in Los Angeles and New York. Set in racially divided 1930s America, the documentary examines the conflict within black America over whether or not the athletes should boycott the '36 Olympics, and how their presence on the world stage in Hitler's Germany impacted the modern civil rights movement.

For more, we’re joined by Deborah Riley Draper, writer and director of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice. She’s joining us from Atlanta.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about why you chose to make this film.

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: Well, I thought their stories were really important. When we look at African-American history, there are so many stories that can help us understand our struggle for equality. And this one was—it stood out in my mind. You have 18 athletes on the world stage. The fact that they were there in 1936, when America did not consider African Americans anything other than second-class citizens, in itself, was a big historic moment. And the fact that they were there and they won hearts and they won medals on the world stage in front of Adolf Hitler makes them the only set of African-American athletes in the history to face and overcome both Jim Crow racism and Aryan supremacy racism. So that stuck with me, and I thought it would be important to tell their story, because this is a story of struggle, it’s a story of bias, it’s a story of trials, but it’s also a story of triumph. And their very presence is what opened the floodgates for the integration we know now in professional and amateur sports.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Deborah Riley Draper, as you point out in the film, there was enormous debate and controversy at the time over their participation, because there were Jewish groups in the United States, as well as the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, that were urging the black athletes not to participate in the Games. But yet, newspapers like The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier, African-American newspapers, were urging them to participate. Could you talk about that?

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: Absolutely. So, in 1936, the country is coming out of the Great Depression. There are anti-lynching bills sitting with the president at the White House. And these African-American athletes are right in the middle of this political firestorm, because there was tremendous pressure to take a moral stance and protest participating in Germany, because by protesting and not going, that means you didn’t support the discrimination that was happening in Germany. But on the flip side, there was this real push to say, if we’re there, if we’re part of this American team, it demonstrates that we’re American, that we’re patriotic, but it also demonstrates, if we win, that we’re not inferior, that we are capable and quite ready to be a part of America, and fully a part of America.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to this split—

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: So that was this debate.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s go to it within your film about whether or not the athletes should boycott the Games, like athletes Ralph Metcalfe, David Albritton, Jesse Owens and others, writing to Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, expressing their support of participating. Their letter was met with concern from leaders in the community. This is another clip from your film.

NARRATOR: Walter White, the president of the NAACP, replies in a letter, “I … realize how great a sacrifice it will be for [you] to give up the trip to Europe and to forego the acclaim your athletic prowess will unquestionably bring you. … [But] participation … would, I firmly believe, do irreparable harm. … The moral issue involved is … far greater than immediate … benefit.”

AMY GOODMAN: Deborah Riley Draper, your response?

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: Well, you know, it’s a really interesting dynamic, when you think about it, because going to Nazi Germany and participating in Nazi Germany, does that mean you actually support what that regime is doing? Is it better to have a moral protest? And I think that’s what the letter was trying to communicate, that we can take a stance here by not going, and that’s more powerful than being there. But on the flip side, these athletes wanted to demonstrate the fact that they were ready and they were patriotic, and being there wasn’t necessarily that they supported Nazi Germany. Being there would give them an opportunity to tear down and unpack these crazy myths and misconceptions about African Americans. So that’s why they wanted to go, and that’s why they stood up for the opportunity to be there.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to turn to another clip from the movie. This is Ralph Metcalfe Jr. talking about his father, who was—who would later become a congressman and a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.

RALPH METCALFE JR.: Dad had a pretty rough early life. When they got up here, they discovered that the playground was a block from the crib. That’s where he picked up his nickname Rabbit. He had no intention of going to college. His idea was, once I graduate from Tilden, I can get more hours at the fish market and help my mom with the family better. He was running in a track meet, and Marquette’s athletic director saw the boy run. He said, “That’s our man right there.” Jennings offered him a scholarship. My father said, “Well, I don’t know. Let me go talk to my mom about that.” And here’s what she said. She said, “Boy, if I’ve got to get on my hands and knees and scrub these white people’s floors, you are going to college.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk, if you will, about Ralph Metcalfe Sr. and his importance on this team, and—even though he’s basically been forgotten as a member of the team.

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: Well, Ralph Metcalfe was a part of the 1932 Olympic team in Los Angeles, so his presence on the 1936 team was one of an elder statesman, if you will. He encouraged all of the athletes to really concentrate on athletics, and not necessarily concentrate on the political atmosphere that they were actually entering. He was kind of a coach and a father to all of these athletes. And I guess you could see the making of a politician there, because he was very charismatic, and he was very smart, and he was very comforting and parental to all of the team, including the two women.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the women. Of the 18 African-American athletes selected for the 1936 Olympic team, two were women: Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett. In this clip from your film, Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, we hear from Pickett’s daughters, Faye Walker and Bernita Echols. But first, Stokes’ son, Wilfred Fraser Jr.

WILFRED FRASER JR.: Eight girls and one boy. My mother started taking up athletics—running, basketball, anything to do with sports. After school, she started racing the boys down the railroad track. They would pick on her, tell her she wasn’t fast. And what she would do in the morning before school is run the railroad tracks every single time. So that’s how she developed her quickness. And then she became quite good at it. And after a while, she started beating the boys. And, you know, after that, they started leaving her alone.

FAYE WALKER: Mother didn’t talk a lot, you know? And so, we got bits and pieces of her history. She was one of two children. She has an older brother, two years older. They were born on the South Side of Chicago.

BERNITA ECHOLS: We know that her and her brother were often competitive, and racing was one of the things that they loved to do. And so it just seemed something that was pretty innate in her. There were often stories told about who would beat who.

FAYE WALKER: But she was fastest, of course.

BERNITA ECHOLS: Of course.

FAYE WALKER: She was the star of the basketball team. And that takes some doing, since mother was only like five-two-and-a-half or 5’3”.

BERNITA ECHOLS: Right.

FAYE WALKER: She attended the recreational events and things at the Chicago Park District on the South Side. She was discovered there, so she started running for the Park District.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk, if you will, about the role of the two women during the Olympics. One of them actually got hurt at the start of the race, and the other was pulled in favor of a white athlete at the last moment?

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: We’re going to save a little bit of this film for the audience, for sure. But I will talk about the role of these two black women. Here you have the very first two African-American women in the history of our country to represent our country. They represented the country in 1932, and they didn’t have the opportunity to compete because they were replaced by white athletes. And in 1936, they—one of them had a similar fate, but what they did was they laid the groundwork for scores of women, regardless of race, but in particularly black women, to have the opportunity to be on the world stage and compete. So, the next couple of Olympics, there was war. But in 1948, you saw Alice Coachman emerge and to win a gold. So, Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes cleared that path for Alice Coachman, Wilma Rudolph, Flo-Jo and all of the women that would come behind them, including a very, very diverse team this year in 2016.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us. A remarkable story.

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most shocked by, Deborah?

DEBORAH RILEY DRAPER: Oh, my gosh, I was most shocked by the fact that Tidye and Louise actually existed. I had no idea that the 17 existed, but I really didn’t know two of them were women. And I didn’t know that one of them was Jackie Robinson’s older brother, Mack Robinson. I think those were the most shocking things for me to discover, in addition to the fact that, as I said before, there were 17 others. My whole life, I thought there was just Jesse Owens. So I was proud to really bring the story of all 18 for the world to see. And I hope people see it in New York and L.A., or they check it out on Amazon for preorder.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Deborah, thank you so much for being with us. Deborah Riley Draper, writer and director of Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, the documentary that explores the experiences of the 18 African-American athletes who participated in the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a remarkable story here in New York. Stay with us.

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