Walter White’s thoughts on the 1936 Olympics (1935)

Walter White was…. In December 1935, he composed a letter–never sent–to Jesse Ownes in which he argued against participating in Hitler’s Olympic games. He acknowledges the personal sacrifice such a boycott would require, but he says the “moral issue” should take precedence. Such dictatorships as Hitler’s and Mussolini’s always prey on the weakest, and in the United States the alarming rise of prejudice against Blacks, Jews, and Catholics suggests that Americans cannot rest easy in the belief that “IT CANNOT HAPPEN HERE.”


My dear Mr. Owens;

Will you permit me to say that it was with deep regret that I read in the New York press today a statement attributed to you saying that you would participate in the 1936 Olympic games even if they are held in Germany under the Hitler [government/regime]. I trust you will not think me unduly officious in expressing the hope that this report is erroneous.

I fully realize how great a sacrifice it will be for [you] to give up the trip to Europe and to forego the acclaim that your athletic prowess will unquestionably bring you. I realize equally well how hypocritical it is for certain Americans to point the finger of scorn at any other country [for] racial or any other kind of bigotry.

On the other hand, it is my firm conviction that the issue of participation in the 1936 Olympics, if held in Germany under the present regime, transcends all other [in] Participation by American athletes, and especially by [those of] our own race which has suffered more than any other from American race hatred, would, I firmly believe, do irreparable harm. I take the liberty of sending you a copy of the [notes???] I made at a meeting here in New York, at Mecca Temple last evening. This sorry world of ours is apparently been in a fumbling way to realize what prejudice against any [???] minority group does not only to other minorities but to the group which is in power. The very preeminence of American Negro athletes gives them an unparalleled opportunity to strike a blow at racial bigotry and to make other minority groups conscious of the sameness of their problems with [ours] and puts them under the moral obligation to think more [o..] and to fight more vigorously against the wrongs from which Negroes suffer.

But the moral issue involved is, in my opinion, far greater than immediate or future benefit to the Negro [as a] race. If the Hitlers and Mussolinis of the world are successful it is inevitable that dictatorships based upon prejudice will spread throughout the world, as indeed they are now spreading. Defeat of dictators before they become too entrenched would, on the other hand, deter nations which through fear or other unworthy emotions are tending towards dictatorships. Let me make this quite concrete. Anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Negro prejudices are growing alarmingly throughout the United States. Should efforts towards recovery fail, there is no telling where America will go. There are some people who believe that a proletarian dictatorship will come. I do not believe this will happen and the course of history clearly indicates that it is not a likely to happen. Instead, it is more probably that we [wo...] have a fascist dictatorship.

It is also historically true that such reactionary dictatorships pick out the most vulnerable group as its first victims. In the United States it would be the Negro who would be the chief and first sufferer, just as the Jews have been made the scapegoats of Hitlerism in Nazi Germany. Sinclair Lewis, in his last novel, IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, has written what seems to me to be a very sound picture of what may happen.

I have written at greater length than I had intended [at] the outset.  I hope, however, that you will not take offence at my writing you thus frankly with the hope that you will take the high stand that we should rise above personal ben[efits] and help strike a blow at intolerance. I am sure that your stand will be applauded by many people in all parts of the world, as your participation under the present situation in Germany would alienate many high-minded people who are awaking to the dangers of intolerance wherever it raises its h[and].

Ever sincerely,



Source: NAACP Secretary Walter White to Jesse Owens concerning the 1936 Olympic games, December 4, 1935. Typed letter. NAACP Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (082.00.00) Courtesy of the NAACP

[Digital ID # na0082p1]