Heroes Without a Country: America's Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens

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"Black men look like they rule sport in America today. It was nothing like that in the 1930s. America was white and that was that. It didn't do you no good to dream of making it to the big time. It was impossible. And then, y'know, along came Jesse and along came Joe."

— Ruth Owens, Jesse's late wife

n the summer of 1935, within weeks of each other, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens emerged as the first black superstars of world sport, and their subsequent political and social impact on America was nothing short of ...

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Overview

"Black men look like they rule sport in America today. It was nothing like that in the 1930s. America was white and that was that. It didn't do you no good to dream of making it to the big time. It was impossible. And then, y'know, along came Jesse and along came Joe."

— Ruth Owens, Jesse's late wife

n the summer of 1935, within weeks of each other, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens emerged as the first black superstars of world sport, and their subsequent political and social impact on America was nothing short of sensational. To fans (and even critics) the world over, they seemed larger than life, and yet in their endeavors they were unfailingly human: as vulnerable as they were courageous; as troubled as they were brilliant; as unsettled in themselves as they are now fixed in history.

Scrupulously researched and written in spare, eloquent prose, Heroes Without a Country vividly re-creates some of the most dramatic sporting events of the past century. In August 1936, in front of Hitler and an imposing phalanx of Nazi commanders, Jesse Owens, "the fastest man on earth," won an unprecedented four medals at the Olympic Games in Berlin. Two years later, in "the fight of the century," his great friend Joe Louis crushed Germany's Max Schmeling to signal the end of white supremacy in boxing. Like Jesse, Joe had been born to black sharecropping parents in a country demeaned by racism; together their victories became a rallying point for the disenfranchised black population of America. Idolized across the world, they were two young men at the pinnacle of their careers who overcame prejudice and fear to achieve their goals. Yet for both of them, success brought its own perils. In 1938, two years after winning his gold medals in Berlin, Owens was hounded out of amateur sports by the infamously tyrannical Olympic boss "Slavery Avery" Brundage and, facing financial ruin, he was reduced to running for money against dogs, horses, and even his friend Joe Louis. Later the two would be subjected to FBI investigations, harassed by the IRS, and beleaguered by debt and despair. Jesse watched Joe slip into drug addiction and mental illness.

In Heroes Without a Country, award-winning writer Donald McRae captures the uncanny coincidences and intertwined events that bound these men together — through both triumph and tragedy — and provides an intimate and thought-provoking dual portrait of two of the most important athletes of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
After learning that the Olympic track star Jesse Owens once raced against the legendary heavyweight champion Joe Louis, McRae, a freelance writer living in London, set out to find what prompted such an unlikely pairing and to trace the arc of the two men's lives. The result of McRae's research is a powerful and moving story that documents how these two black stars struggled to reconcile their fame and success in the sporting arena to the discrimination faced by black Americans across most parts of the country. The answer to why Owens raced Louis is simple-Owens needed the money and Louis was more than willing to help out his friend. After refusing to continue a barnstorming tour following the 1936 Olympics, Owens was banned from continuing his track-and-field career as an amateur and turned to other ways to cash in on his notoriety. Following the collapse of several promising ventures, Owens took to racing horses and working at other odd jobs. Louis had no problem earning money as a professional fighter, but he had trouble keeping it. He spent freely, paid large sums to his promoters and handlers, and ended up owing the IRS millions in back taxes. Despite their money woes (Owens's financial situation improved over the years), the men slowly worked to break down racial barriers, and for that they held a special place in the hearts of most black Americans. McRae evinces a deep appreciation for the burdens fame bestowed on Owens and Louis and shines a well-deserved spotlight on two of the most prominent Americans of the 20th century. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
South African sportswriter McRae here details the difficult ascent of two American sports legends and the considerable cost to both. Beginning with their roots in impoverished rural Alabama, Owens and Louis had much in common. Although Owens was the nation's greatest track-and-field performer and Louis the longest-reigning and perhaps finest heavyweight boxing champion ever, both had to contend with vicious stereotyping and the disgraceful reality of Jim Crow. In particular, sportswriters built up Louis as some kind of dimwitted, simian-like creature whose twisted temperament enabled him to best white pugilists. Finally, sprinter-jumper Owens's unparalleled Olympic feats before the Nazi leadership in 1936 won him the plaudits he deserved, and Louis's first-round pummeling of German boxer Max Schmeling in 1938 resulted in more respectful press treatment. Nevertheless, both men-who became fast friends at the height of their fame-endured tough times and few later opportunities, with the Internal Revenue Service going after each, which helped send Louis into an increasingly dark spiral. Although not displacing full biographies such as Chris Mead's Champion Joe Louis, this dual life is a terrific read and tells an important story. Recommended for public library sports collections.-C. Robert Cottrell, M.L.S., Lafayette, IN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060002282
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/3/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 389
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.34 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald McRae is the acclaimed author of five nonfiction books, including Every Second Counts: The Race to Transplant the First Human Heart and Heroes Without a Country: America's Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. He is the only writer to have won the William Hill UK Sports Book of the Year Award twice. In 2005 he was named Feature Writer of the Year for his work in The Guardian. McRae lives near London with his family.

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Read an Excerpt

Heroes Without a Country

America's Betrayal of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens
By Donald McRae

Ecco

ISBN: 006000228X


Chapter One


The Race


Chicago, July 4, 1938

Jesse Owens awoke early that Monday morning. A sense of dread had followed him from Berlin to Cleveland and, gathering in force, found him in places as far away as Albuquerque and Havana. It returned at night, sweeping over him as he slept the empty sleep of an exhausted man in the back room of a black boardinghouse on the south side of Chicago.

Although just twenty-four, and the fastest man in the world, Jesse was already worn out. It no longer mattered that he had not run a real race for nearly two years. He was sick of running. Jesse had not anticipated feeling like this when the streets hummed in celebration of his great and unshakable friend, Joe Louis. Yet, that afternoon, Jesse would face Joe in a stunt that now seemed as desolate as it was strange.

On his way back from the rickety ballpark the night before, his mood light and airy, Jesse had walked with some of the American Giants, a Negro baseball team from Chicago. Their voices boomed with wonder as they relived the last terrible seconds when Joe Louis and Max Schmeling had waited for the bell in a New York ring two weeks previously. Inside cramped and hushed houses across America, people had gathered anxiously around their box radios. It was as if their own fate would be decided by a struggle between Louis, their cherished Brown Bomber, and Schmeling, the German fighter supported by Hitler and every white cracker in America.

Never before, Jesse said, had so many black voices been as silent as they were in that moment. The only sound was the low-pitched commentary of Clem McCarthy. He described the two fighters moving toward each other under the hot lights of Yankee Stadium, just across the river from Harlem. They were all in the ring then, with Joe, as the bell rang.

Two minutes later, they erupted. In Chicago, just as in Harlem, people ran from their homes. They ran into the black summer night. They took to the streets, howling "Ah told ya so! Ah told ya so!" as if they had never doubted that Schmeling would be shattered by King Joe. Some of the men and women who poured down South Parkway pasted the phrase on themselves. "Ah told ya so!" was printed in large black letters on sheets of watermelon-pink paper that they stuck to their shirts and dresses with little strips of tape. The words danced in front of them as they ran, still screaming at anyone they saw: "Ah told ya so! Ah told ya so!"

They were joined by ramshackle bands beating out a delirious noise on washtubs and steel trashcans. Car horns blared in time with the marching players. Tiny girls bobbed on the sidewalks as older boys emptied bottles in a gulp - "Do it for Joe!" they yelped - before smashing the colored glass in front of the watching policemen.

Harlem had shimmied in similar ecstasy, especially at those haunts where Jesse and Joe hung out - the Cotton Club, the Memo Club and Small's Paradise, where the girls were lovely and the gangsters were deadly. On the streets, 100,000 black men and women rushed up and down Lenox and Seventh Avenues. One of them, forty-year-old Jacob Enlow, bawled out a single name - "Joe Louis! Joe Louis! Joe Louis!" - until he dropped dead on the street. The rest raved on until a pale dawn took the edge off their historic partying.

Jesse was at his happiest when he thought about everything he and Joe had achieved over the last three years. Ever since the summer of 1935, when they became the two most famous Negroes in America and the most renowned black men in the world, Jesse and Joe had been more than just friends. They were a team, two brothers from Alabama, the perfect match of a blistering runner and an ice-cold fighter.

Jesse pulled out the newspapers he'd shoved into his suitcase. No matter how hard he tried, he rarely got around to reading much. Jesse kept on collecting papers though, sometimes tearing out clippings for the scrapbooks he and Ruth had started before they were married. Lately, as the piles of cuttings grew and the newest scrapbooks remained untouched, he had begun to limit his quick search to material he might use in his speeches. Having conquered his childhood stammer, he was becoming increasingly accustomed to talking through a microphone to the crowds who turned out to watch his exhibition races. Jesse always spoke in rousing terms, mostly about the four gold medals he had won in the 1936 Berlin Olympics or the way that Joe Louis inspired every Negro in America. Jesse liked to pepper his chat with uplifting quotes, but it wasn't easy finding encouraging copy in the white newspapers.

Even though the papers were full of Joe Louis, their reports were often twisted. The latest edition of the black weekly, the Pittsburgh Courier, had pieced together the views of the country's leading sportswriters to offer an overview of Joe's impact on white America. Jesse did not always recognize his friend in print. Joe Louis could fight better than anyone on the planet, but no matter how hard he hit a man between the ropes, he was the softest guy you'd ever meet. The press turned him into something different.

Jesse began to underline some sentences. For Dan Parker, of the New York Daily Mirror, "Louis has finally come into his estate as a great world's champion. If anyone doubts his greatness after his masterful job last night, he's plain plumb prejudiced." Yet Henry McLemore, the United Press columnist, was appalled by the sight of "this ruthless, unmerciful killer." Louis had become "a jungle man, as completely primitive as any savage, out to destroy a thing he hates."

O.B. Keeler's report in the Atlanta Journal turned into a lament: "Joe Louis is the heavyweight champion of the world and, so far as this correspondent can see, there is nothing to be done about it. Our fastest runners are colored boys, and our longest jumpers and our highest jumpers." In the Chicago Daily News, Hugh S. Johnson tried to answer Keeler ... (Continues...)



Excerpted from Heroes Without a Country by Donald McRae
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

The Race

Chicago, July 4, 1938

Jesse Owens awoke early that Monday morning. A sense of dread had followed him from Berlin to Cleveland and, gathering in force, found him in places as far away as Albuquerque and Havana. It returned at night, sweeping over him as he slept the empty sleep of an exhausted man in the back room of a black boardinghouse on the south side of Chicago.

Although just twenty-four, and the fastest man in the world, Jesse was already worn out. It no longer mattered that he had not run a real race for nearly two years. He was sick of running. Jesse had not anticipated feeling like this when the streets hummed in celebration of his great and unshakable friend, Joe Louis. Yet, that afternoon, Jesse would face Joe in a stunt that now seemed as desolate as it was strange.

On his way back from the rickety ballpark the night before, his mood light and airy, Jesse had walked with some of the American Giants, a Negro baseball team from Chicago. Their voices boomed with wonder as they relived the last terrible seconds when Joe Louis and Max Schmeling had waited for the bell in a New York ring two weeks previously. Inside cramped and hushed houses across America, people had gathered anxiously around their box radios. It was as if their own fate would be decided by a struggle between Louis, their cherished Brown Bomber, and Schmeling, the German fighter supported by Hitler and every white cracker in America.

Never before, Jesse said, had so many black voices been as silent as they were in that moment. The only sound was the low-pitched commentary of Clem McCarthy. He described the two fighters moving toward each other under the hot lights of Yankee Stadium, just across the river from Harlem. They were all in the ring then, with Joe, as the bell rang.

Two minutes later, they erupted. In Chicago, just as in Harlem, people ran from their homes. They ran into the black summer night. They took to the streets, howling "Ah told ya so! Ah told ya so!" as if they had never doubted that Schmeling would be shattered by King Joe. Some of the men and women who poured down South Parkway pasted the phrase on themselves. "Ah told ya so!" was printed in large black letters on sheets of watermelon-pink paper that they stuck to their shirts and dresses with little strips of tape. The words danced in front of them as they ran, still screaming at anyone they saw: "Ah told ya so! Ah told ya so!"

They were joined by ramshackle bands beating out a delirious noise on washtubs and steel trashcans. Car horns blared in time with the marching players. Tiny girls bobbed on the sidewalks as older boys emptied bottles in a gulp -- "Do it for Joe!" they yelped -- before smashing the colored glass in front of the watching policemen.

Harlem had shimmied in similar ecstasy, especially at those haunts where Jesse and Joe hung out -- the Cotton Club, the Memo Club and Small's Paradise, where the girls were lovely and the gangsters were deadly. On the streets, 100,000 black men and women rushed up and down Lenox and Seventh Avenues. One of them, forty-year-old Jacob Enlow, bawled out a single name -- "Joe Louis! Joe Louis! Joe Louis!" -- until he dropped dead on the street. The rest raved on until a pale dawn took the edge off their historic partying.

Jesse was at his happiest when he thought about everything he and Joe had achieved over the last three years. Ever since the summer of 1935, when they became the two most famous Negroes in America and the most renowned black men in the world, Jesse and Joe had been more than just friends. They were a team, two brothers from Alabama, the perfect match of a blistering runner and an ice-cold fighter.

Jesse pulled out the newspapers he'd shoved into his suitcase. No matter how hard he tried, he rarely got around to reading much. Jesse kept on collecting papers though, sometimes tearing out clippings for the scrapbooks he and Ruth had started before they were married. Lately, as the piles of cuttings grew and the newest scrapbooks remained untouched, he had begun to limit his quick search to material he might use in his speeches. Having conquered his childhood stammer, he was becoming increasingly accustomed to talking through a microphone to the crowds who turned out to watch his exhibition races. Jesse always spoke in rousing terms, mostly about the four gold medals he had won in the 1936 Berlin Olympics or the way that Joe Louis inspired every Negro in America. Jesse liked to pepper his chat with uplifting quotes, but it wasn't easy finding encouraging copy in the white newspapers.

Even though the papers were full of Joe Louis, their reports were often twisted. The latest edition of the black weekly, the Pittsburgh Courier, had pieced together the views of the country's leading sportswriters to offer an overview of Joe's impact on white America. Jesse did not always recognize his friend in print. Joe Louis could fight better than anyone on the planet, but no matter how hard he hit a man between the ropes, he was the softest guy you'd ever meet. The press turned him into something different.

Jesse began to underline some sentences. For Dan Parker, of the New York Daily Mirror, "Louis has finally come into his estate as a great world's champion. If anyone doubts his greatness after his masterful job last night, he's plain plumb prejudiced." Yet Henry McLemore, the United Press columnist, was appalled by the sight of "this ruthless, unmerciful killer." Louis had become "a jungle man, as completely primitive as any savage, out to destroy a thing he hates."

O.B. Keeler's report in the Atlanta Journal turned into a lament: "Joe Louis is the heavyweight champion of the world and, so far as this correspondent can see, there is nothing to be done about it. Our fastest runners are colored boys, and our longest jumpers and our highest jumpers." In the Chicago Daily News, Hugh S. Johnson tried to answer Keeler ...

Heroes Without a Country. Copyright © by Donald McRae. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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