On August 4, 1936, Jesse Owens of the United States won the second of his four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. Jesse won the long jump, beating the German soldier/athlete Lutz Long. The defeated German was the first to congratulate Jesse, giving the black American a hug. This enraged Adolph Hitler.
Today, the anniversary of that embrace, we celebrate the meaning of friendship. True friendship is never defined by race, class, politics, or war; it is a matter of the soul.
Jesse would tell people throughout his life, “It took a lot of courage for Lutz to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have, and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Lutz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”
Lutz and Owens remained friends after the Olympics, exchanging letters even after America entered the European war theater in December 1941. Lutz served with the German Army in North Africa before being killed in action on July 14, 1943, defending Nazi-held Sicily from the Allied invasion.
Lutz wrote his last letter to Jesse Owens in the spring of 1943. He seemed aware of his soon-to-be death on the battlefield. He wrote from North Africa :
– “‘I am here, Jesse, where it seems there is only the dry sand and the wet blood. I do not fear so much for myself, my friend Jesse, I fear for my woman who is home, and my young son Karl, who has never really known his father.’
– ‘My heart tells me, if I am honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war is done, someday find my Karl [Kai], and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we were not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.’
– ‘If you do this something for me, this thing that I need the most to know will be done, I do something for you, now. I tell you something I know you want to hear. And it is true.’
– ‘That hour in Berlin when I first spoke to you, when you had your knee upon the ground, I knew that you were in prayer.’
– ‘Then I not know how I know. Now I do. I know it is never by chance that we come together. I come to you that hour in 1936 for purpose more than der Berliner Olympiade.’
– ‘And you, I believe, will read this letter, while it should not be possible to reach you ever, for purpose more even than our friendship.’
– ‘I believe this shall come about because I think now that God will make it come about. This is what I have to tell you, Jesse.’
– ‘I think I might believe in God.’
– ‘And I pray to him that, even while it should not be possible for this to reach you ever, these words I write will still be read by you.'”
Jesse Owens did receive Lutz’s last letter. In 1951, he fulfilled his friend’s last request. Jesse traveled to Germany to meet 10-year-old Kai Long, the now orphan son of Lutz Long (Kai’s mother had also died during the war).
A decade later, Jesse Owens would be the best man at Kai Long’s wedding. Jesse Owens remained a fatherly friend to Kai until Jesse died on March 31, 1980.
But the story doesn’t end with Jesse’s death.
In 2009, the IAAF World Championship in Athletics was held in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, where the 1936 Olympics took place.
Jesse Owens’ granddaughter Marlene (Owens) Dortch, Lutz’s son Karl (Kai), and Lutz’s granddaughter Julia represented the Owens and Long families at the awards presentation, giving the gold medal to the winner of the long jump.
Lutz Long and Jesse Owens teach this world how real friendship can cross political, social, cultural, ethnic, and class lines.
The International Day of Friendship is July 30. On August 4, 2022, we remember one of the most remarkable illustrations of friendship.