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The documentaries Jesse Owens and The Fight offer starting points for explorations into a broad range of topics in American and world history, including the events leading to World War II, the rise of Nazism in Europe, race relations in America during the first half of the 20th century, challenges and opportunities facing African American athletes, the relationship between the individual and his or her government, the early years of broadcast media, African American migration to the North, the cultural and social milieu of Harlem, the nature of role models and heroism, and more. Use the documentaries or the accompanying websites to learn more about these topics, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are divided into four categories:

  • civics
  • history
  • economics
  • geography

You can also read a number of helpful hints for completing the activities.


1. To examine the rise of Nazism and its effects on the world, divide the class into four groups and assign each group one of the following time periods: 1933-1936, 1937-1939, 1940-1942, and 1943-1945. Each group should research the main developments concerning Nazi Germany during its assigned time period. Then, as a class, use the information gathered by the groups to prepare a detailed timeline of the period spanning 1933 to 1945. Next, have the entire class read Nazis in the News, which contains excerpts from American newspapers on events in Nazi Germany, and review these news reports as a class. Then discuss: Which excerpts reflect an understanding of the Nazis' potential for aggression and evil? Which do not reflect such an understanding? Do you think an American who relied on these articles for information about Nazi Germany would have had an accurate picture of the regime's actions and goals? Why or why not?

2. Near the end of the documentary Jesse Owens, writer Jeremy Schaap describes Owens as "the quintessential Olympic hero." Schaap continues by saying: "He stood up to racists in Germany, he stood up to racists at home, and he did it with a grace and a genius that have not been equaled." Discuss Schaap's statement. In what specific ways and during what phases of his life did Owens face racism? When and how did he stand up to racists? What were the results -- for Owens, for America, for Germany, and for the Olympics? What do you see as the defining characteristics of a hero? In your view, does Owens qualify as a heroic figure? Explain.

3. Read about Black Boxers and the idea of a "Great White Hope." Unlike the managers of the white 1920s heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who played up Dempsey's rough image, Joe Louis's managers presented Louis as non-threatening -- a so-called "good Negro" -- in order to win his acceptance by white Americans. Choose one of the following two activities:
(a) Copy the poem "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar onto a sheet of paper. Below the poem, explain in your own words what Dunbar is saying in each of the poem's three stanzas. Finally, write a paragraph explaining how the poem relates to the strategy of presenting Louis to the public as a "good Negro."
(b) Write a newspaper column of 500 to 750 words expressing your view on whether African American athletes (and other African American celebrities) today are still judged by different and harsher standards than white athletes or celebrities. Include specific details to support your argument.

1. Read a profile of Joe Louis or Jesse Owens. Like Owens -- who declared bankruptcy -- and Louis, some famous athletes ended up broke despite their success. (Mike Tyson is a recent example.) Others, like Max Schmeling and George Foreman, proved to be successful businessmen. Select a well-known athlete -- Owens, Louis, Schmeling, Foreman, Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Venus or Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, or someone else -- and conduct research to find out how he or she handled his or her income. Share your findings with the class. Are there lessons that can be drawn from the stories you researched?

2. Find out how much money, in salary and endorsements, a favorite athlete of yours makes each year. Then create at least two graphics that put these earnings in perspective. For example, you might create a bar graph that compares the athlete's earnings to the annual earnings of another person (such as an average American homeowner, a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage, or the President of the United States), or show how many and what kinds of goods the athlete could purchase with these earnings.

1. Review Chapter 2 of Jesse Owens. Why did some Americans argue that the U.S. should boycott the 1936 Olympic Games? What was Jesse Owens' position on this question? Who was Avery Brundage, and what role did he play in influencing the U.S. decision on participation in the Olympic Games? As a class, stage a debate between supporters and opponents of a U.S. withdrawal from the Berlin Olympics. Then discuss: What impact might a boycott by the U.S. have had on the 1936 Olympics and, more broadly, on the history of World War Two? In your opinion, should the U.S. have boycotted the Games? Why or why not?

2. Read and listen to Ringside Radio. As the feature states, more than 70 million Americans -- more than half the country -- listened to the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight. Later that year, some 40 million Americans tuned in to hear the historic horse race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. Write a description of an occasion in which you "attended" a major event -- either in person or via television or radio -- that was seen or heard by large numbers of Americans. Did participating in this event make you feel more connected to other people? Did you discuss it with friends and family afterwards? After volunteers have read their descriptions to the class, discuss whether the government and/or private groups should hold public events that bring the entire nation together at a specific time each year for a common purpose, such as honoring national heroes, cleaning up the community, or helping the needy.

3. Read a profile of Joe Louis or of Jesse Owens. At the 1936 Olympics, Owens proudly represented America while discrediting Adolf Hitler's belief that the Aryan people were the "master race." When the United States entered World War II, Joe Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army, helped raise funds for the war effort, and made his own financial donations, as well. During the Vietnam War more than two decades later, another legendary athlete, Muhammad Ali, was drafted by the Army but refused to report for service on the basis of his religious beliefs. As a class, investigate the controversy surrounding Ali's decision -- which cost him his heavyweight title and led to a court case that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court -- and prepare two editorials on the issue, one supporting Ali's decision and a second opposing it.

1. "In the early 1830s," Jesse Owens wrote, "my ancestors were brought on a boat across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to America as slaves for men who felt they had a right to own other men. I boarded a boat to go back across the Atlantic Ocean to do battle with Adolf Hitler. As the last traces of land vanished, I knew that we were moving further and further from America and that I wouldn't see it again until I had won, or I had lost." Working in small groups or as a class, compare conditions -- political, social, and economic -- that Owens' ancestors faced on their journey to America in the early 1830s with those that Owens himself faced on his journey to Germany in 1936. What dramatic changes had taken place for African Americans during this century? What similarities do you see between Owens' life in the 1930s -- both in the U.S. and during the Berlin Olympics -- and the experiences his ancestors had lived through a hundred years earlier?

2. Take the Online Poll on whether sports figures should be role models. Both Lewis and Schmeling were "adopted" by their respective countries as symbols of national and ethnic pride. Did either fighter have any control over this process? Form two-person groups and assign each person one of the two fighters. Then answer these questions for the fighter you have been assigned: Could he have refused to become a symbol of his group or nation? If so, how? If not, why not? Do you think he should have refused to become such a symbol? Why or why not? Write up your conclusions and present them to the class.

3. Read about Joe Louis in Harlem. Select one of the artists or organizations mentioned in the reading that are associated with the "Harlem Renaissance" and research that person or group. Use the information you have gathered to prepare a five-minute oral presentation on that topic for the class.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your sports hero? Who do you think had the biggest impact on our country? Who is your favorite? Share your story with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • DIG: Nordblom Family Foundation, Gretchen Stone Cook Charitable Foundation (owens, death)
  • Yawkey Foundation