“The sight of the graceful American’s soaring victory in the long jump and his Olympic-record wins in the 100-and 200-meter dashes and 400-meter relay put the lie to der Führer’s simplistic myths about race,” TIME noted in 1980. Jesse Owens’ triumphant showing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics famously put a stake through the supposed claims of Aryan “racial superiority.”
But despite Owen’s record-breaking success both on and off the field, his achievements were not widely lauded by the American public at the time. “Hitler didn’t snub me; it was our president [FDR] who snubbed me,” the 23-year-old Owens told a crowd upon his return to the States. “The president didn’t even send a telegram.”
Yet on August 3, 1936, an unlikely friendship began to develop between the German-born track star Carl Ludwig “Luz” Long and Owens. And while myth shrouds the story of whether Long gave Owens crucial advice before his third and final opportunity to qualify for the long jump finals, cameras captured the budding friendship as Long strode over to Owens and embraced him.
“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens later said in an interview. “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.”
After besting Long and taking home gold in the long jump, Owens was famously photographed saluting the American flag. Long stood behind him, offering the Nazi salute.
The two remained friends, keeping in contact as much of world plunged into war. Long was stationed with the German Army in North Africa before being killed in action on July 14, 1943, during the Allied invasion of Sicily. In his last letter to Owens, Long, seemingly aware of his impending fate wrote, “My heart tells me, if I be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl [Kai], and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we not separated by war. I am saying—tell him how things can be between men on this earth.”
In 1951 Owens traveled to Germany to meet Long’s then 10-year-old son, Kai, fulfilling his promise to indeed tell the young boy how things could be. Owens eventually served as best man at Kai’s wedding, and the two families remain in contact to this day.
Read the full letter below:
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 be honest with you, that this is the last letter I shall ever write. If it is so, I ask you something. It is a something so very important to me. It is you go to Germany when this war done, someday find my Karl, and tell him about his father. Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we 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.