It only takes a moment to change the world, to challenge and inspire. For all of the work, preparation, failure and success, when the moment comes to bring it all together, extraordinary people throughout history have focused that energy into one defining and life-changing moment in time.
Born in Alabama the son of a sharecropper, Jesse Owens’ family moved to Ohio when he was still a child, eventually leading to him attending Ohio State University, where he excelled in track and field events. Most famously, a 21-year-old Owens set a trio of world records (the 220-yard dash, the 220-yard low hurdles, and the long jump) and tied a fourth (the 100 yard dash) during a 1935 meet against University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in what’s been called “the greatest 45 minutes in sports.”
One year later, Owens would dominate his events at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, including taking just 10.3 seconds for him to run the 100m sprint and win the first of four gold medals in the face of Adolf Hitler (who was in attendance) three years before the start of World War II.
Owens’ achievements are particularly notable given that he was able to accomplish them in the face of crushing racism, often relegated to blacks-only hotels and restaurants as he traveled across America to competitions that he typically dominated. When he went to Germany for the Olympics, the Nazi regime was in full bore, as Swastika imagery was prevalent throughout Berlin while Owens competed. The Nazis ridiculed black athletes as not only inferior, but even as less than human.
It was under this backdrop of institutionalized racism and prejudice both in America and abroad that Owens found the fortitude and determination to rise above and make history.
Much like Owens, these 10 brave souls flew in the face of adversity, traditional and often conventional wisdom to utilize the world’s stage as a platform to change the course of history while remaking it in their own image.
Martin Luther King Jr. delivers “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial
After debuting the speech in Detroit two months earlier, Dr. King defined the American civil rights movement by delivering the life-changing final version on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. His words painted a vivid picture of possibility, and gave generations of people hope and something to strive for towards a brighter future and equality for all Americans. It was the “I have a dream” line specifically that brought it all into focus, a concise and succinct moment in time that has transcended time and forever remains as King’s vision that lives on as a shared dream around the world.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games
American track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos took their social protests to the podium of the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, raising gloved fists in Black Power salutes while the American National Anthem played after they won the gold (Smith) and bronze (Carlos) medals in the 200m race. Australian silver medalist, Peter Norman, showed solidarity with their cause by wearing a human rights badge on his tracksuit. The moment bonded the three for life, with Smith and Carlos serving as pallbearers at Norman’s funeral.
Macklemore, Queen Latifah and Madonna oversee the marriage of gay couples at the Grammys
When Grammy-nominated artists Macklemore and Ryan Lewis presented their marriage equality song “Same Love,” at the 56th annual Grammy Awards ceremony in 2014, they set out to make it a special and momentous occasion. Alongside Madonna, the duo and guest vocalist Mary Lambert performed the single as Queen Latifah officiated the surprise mass wedding, a mix of 33 gay and straight couples all tying the knot simultaneously. “When such a critically acclaimed and popular rap artist puts marriage equality center stage at one of the biggest events of the year, it is the latest in a long line of signs that our nation not only accepts, but celebrates the love and commitment of gay couples today,” beamed GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis after the show.
DJ Kool Herc and the first hip-hop beat
Utilizing two turntables in the early 1970s, DJ Kool Herc developed a singular style of switching between the instrumental drum breaks on different records to make a new rhythm, essentially creating the world’s first hip-hop beats. Using just a few seconds from one record and a few seconds from another, Herc turned these quick snatches of sound to create the building blocks of New York’s burgeoning hip-hop culture that would become the inspiration for artists and musicians from that moment in time through today.
Lou Gehrig stating, “I’m the luckiest man in the world” after ALS diagnosis
One of the greatest to ever play major league baseball, New York Yankees hero Lou Gehrig’s stellar career was cut short in 1939 when he was diagnosed with the debilitating disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which would also come to be known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Announcing his retirement soon thereafter, July 4th, 1939, was designated as Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. The first MLB player to have his number (4) retired, Gehrig would bravely address the sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium telling them that despite everything, he considered himself “the luckiest man in the world,” showing that even in the face of death, greatness can still rise above and inspire the world.
Michael Jackson introduces the moonwalk during the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever show
In May of 1983, Motown Records’ legends gathered for a massive NBC TV special, with performances from Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, and a reunited Diana Ross and the Supremes. It was Michael Jackson, however, who stole the show with his electrifying performance of the Thriller single, “Billie Jean.” While Jackson’s smooth moves and silky vocals excited the crowd, when he revealed his newest move, the moonwalk, it was the single-most galvanizing moment in pop music history since the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run
Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs in Major League Baseball was one many thought would never be broken, and just as many felt strongly should never be broken. As baseball legend Hank Aaron closed in on the mark during the 1973 season, he was besieged with hate mail and even death threats from those who didn’t want to see an African-American rewrite the history books. On April 8, 1974, Aaron sent a pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing over the outfield wall, launching himself into MLB history en route to a career 755 home runs, eclipsing Ruth’s previous mark.
Jimi Hendrix sets guitar on fire at Monterey Pop Fest
Jimi Hendrix had already redefined rock guitar playing with his sound, having stunned a star-studded crowd in London in January of 1967 at a show that the Who’s Pete Townshend claimed, “turned the rock world upside down.” While the guitarist had pulled the stunt previously, when he set fire to his Fender Stratocaster during a showcase performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of the same year, he truly became a star in America. Elevating not just the sound but also the extremes of live performance, Hendrix’s singular style and vision solidified his status as rock’s greatest showman of his time.
China’s “Tank Man” single-handedly halts a fleet of army tanks in Tiananmen Square
China was still reeling from the Tiananmen Square Massacre, where government troops violently retook the space from pro-democracy protesters who’d been there for weeks, leaving scores of civilians and even some soldiers dead in the process. On June 5, 1989, the day after the massacre, a fleet of tanks was heading into the square when a man carrying shopping bags walked in from the procession, effectively stopping it. When the tanks moved to go around him, he moved to stay in front of them and halt their progress. The whole tense ordeal, which lasted several minutes, was broadcast on live TV before concerned onlookers finally dragged the still-unidentified man away to safety. His image standing in front of those hulking tanks has become an enduring symbol of resistance and freedom around the world.
President Obama being sworn in as President of the United States in 2009
After winning the historic 2008 election in a landslide, the inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s first African-American President in January of 2009 signaled a profound and significant moment in U.S. history. Breaking through a seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling to assume the highest office in the free world, Obama’s inauguration felt like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech had been in some ways finally realized.
Jesse Owens’ courageous story at the 1936 Olympics is detailed in the upcoming biographical film RACE, due in theaters on February 19. For more on the film, check out the official trailer below.