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Culture Review: `Olympic Pride, American Prejudice' reminder of past

Review: `Olympic Pride, American Prejudice’ reminder of past

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“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice: The Untold Story of 18 African Americans Who Defied Jim Crow and Adolf Hitler to Compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” Atria Books, by Deborah Riley Draper, Blair Underwood and Travis Thrasher

Jesse Owens’ name will live forever in Olympic lore but what about the other black athletes who also went to Berlin to compete in games that Adolf Hitler hoped to present as a showcase for Aryan superiority?

They included baseball great Jackie Robinson’s older brother, Mack, who won silver in the 200-meter race, and Cornelius Johnson, who led an American medals’ sweep in the high jump.

So daunting were the athletes’ prospects that they considered boycotting the games. Ralph Metcalfe’s coach told him that he had to be so fast he would create “daylight between you and your nearest competitor.” Metcalfe knew why: If the race was close, the white runner would get the medal.

The athletes already knew lives of racial prejudice; their second-class status confronted them everywhere in America.

On the all-white street in Pasadena, California, where the Robinsons lived after migrating from Georgia, neighbors offered to buy them out. Mallie Robinson, mother of Mack, Jackie and three other children, declined and one summer night the family awakened to a cross burning on the front yard.

They were frightened, but did not sell their house.

“Olympic Pride, American Prejudice” is a reminder of the era of Jim Crow, a derogatory term for blacks and a reference to state laws that sought to maintain segregation and insure that life for black Americans would be defined by degradation, fear and second-class everything.

The book grew from a documentary of the same name produced by Underwood. Conversations and details related in the book are drawn from reporting for the documentary and from family members of the 18 athletes profiled in the book.

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