Thursday, March 31, 2016

Ralph Metcalfe: Olympian with Jesse Owens went on to Chicago politics

Jesse Owens, left, and Ralph Metcalfe were friendly rivals in 1936 when they competed as members of the U.S. Olympic track team. They are shown in New York during the Olympic tryouts before going to Berlin in 1936. (Associated Press / Associated Press)
Ron GrossmanContact Reporter
Look closely and you'll see a Chicago legend flash across the screen in "Race," the new movie about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Ralph Metcalfe, an alum of Tilden Technical High School, finished second in the 100-meter dash, a 10th of a second behind Jesse Owens, the film's hero. Together, they delivered a one-two punch to Adolf Hitler's intention to make the Games a showcase for his racist ideology. Metcalfe and Owens were descendants of slaves, untermenschen — inferior beings, in the Nazis' vocabulary. But collectively, they won five gold medals. Other African-American athletes brought home still more medals, leading the Tribune to sum up their accomplishments with a headline: "Abraham Lincoln Won 1936 Olympic Games."

Still, Metcalfe couldn't have eaten at a Loop restaurant or lived in a white neighborhood in the 1930s. But he went into politics as a member of the Illinois State Athletic Commission and rose to be a U.S. congressman — by doing as he was told. That's the way the Chicago Machine operated. In 1972, however, he broke with Mayor Richard J. Daley, the all-powerful Democratic Party boss, over the same issue that currently inspires the Black Lives Matter movement: police brutality inflicted upon African-Americans.

His name is on the Ralph H. Metcalfe Federal Building on Jackson Boulevard. Yet how many passersby have the faintest idea why it's there? That is a pity. Metcalfe's is a tale of what determination can accomplish, even when the other fellows have been given a big head start.

U.S. Rep. Ralph H. Metcalfe, D. Ill., holds a press conference in the Central Police Headquarters after he and black leaders met with Supt. James Conlisk on April 24, 1972, to discuss police harassment and abuse of black people by policemen. (Gerald West / Chicago Tribune)
Metcalfe was born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1910 and, at 7 years old, came to Chicago with his parents who were hoping to escape the limitations of the Jim Crow South, as thousands of black families were during the Great Migration. But by high school, it was clear that Ralph's story would be different. He had a gift for getting from here to there quicker than others, which, he was informed, wouldn't be enough: "I was told by my coach that as a black person I'd have to put daylight between me and my nearest competitor," Metcalfe told the Tribune shortly before his death in 1978. "So I forced myself to train harder so I could put that daylight behind me."

So much so that he went to Marquette University in Milwaukee on a scholarship. There he equaled the world record in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and was soon being talked about as "the fastest man on Earth." But approbation doesn't buy railroad tickets, and in the Depression years, neither his school nor family had the money to send him to the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Johnny Sisk, who knew him at Marquette and played for the Chicago Bears, explained to a Tribune reporter how Metcalfe got there: "Ralph Metcalfe solved his problem," explained Sisk, "by getting a dining car job on the Santa Fe railroad. That gave him transportation to Los Angeles, his meals and some room-and-board money before he settled in the Olympic Village."

There he won a bronze medal in the 200-meter dash, and finished in a dead heat with another runner in the 100-meter race — the other runner got the gold medal only after the judges' protracted study of the photographs of the finish. Although he again failed to win the event at the Berlin Olympics, his high school coach would have been proud of him. Metcalfe and Owens were on the winning relay team, a victory Owens credited to Metcalfe. "It was the congressman who created a 7-yard gap between the U.S. team and the competing teams in the 400-meter relay, and not one could ever catch up with us," Owens told the Tribune years later.

Ralph Metcalfe competes for Marquette in a preliminary of the 220-yard dash at the Central Intercollegiate meet in 1932. (Chicago Tribune / Tribune File Photo)
After military service during World War II, Metcalfe went into politics under the tutelage of William Dawson, the city's most powerful black officeholder. Even after breaking with the Machine, Metcalfe credited his mentor. "I was taught by none other than the master himself, Rep. William L. Dawson," he told Tribune columnist Vernon Jarrett in 1975. Dawson, whose base was the 2nd Ward, wanted to extend his empire to the 3rd Ward and pushed aside its committeeman to install Metcalfe in that post in 1952. Subsequently he became its alderman, then inherited Dawson's congressional seat.

Through all of these posts he was so firmly loyal to a Machine under attack by blacks and reformers that political mavens were caught flat-footed by Metcalfe's break with Daley. Jarrett noted it is usually the other way around: An independent gets elected, then makes his peace with the bosses. A long-serving creature of the Machine rarely turns independent.

For Metcalfe, the decisive issue was reports that cops were manhandling African-Americans — and that City Hall and the Chicago Police Department were ignoring their complaints. In 1972, Rep. Metcalfe held hearings at the Dirksen Federal Building, where a black dentist testified he was handcuffed because his license-plate light was out. Others said they had been beaten after being stopped for similarly minor infractions. In an 89-page report demanding reforms, Metcalfe called the Police Department "rotten to the core."

With Metcalfe having declared war on the Machine, Daley returned the fire. Patronage jobs, the ultimate base of a Chicago politician's power, were taken out of Metcalfe's hands. Though he was still the 3rd Ward committeeman — narrowly surviving an attempt to beat him at the polling place — a Machine loyalist was given control of whom got which jobs on a garbage truck or behind a clerk's desk in City Hall.

Yet the Machine pols couldn't dislodge him, even after Metcalfe committed the ultimate sin: backing Ald. William Singer, an independent who ran against Daley for mayor in 1975. At the time of his death three years later, Metcalfe was running for a fifth term, and was an odds-on favorite to win. Tributes poured in from friends and foes alike — those who thought he came late to the cause of civil rights, and others who thought him a trouble-maker. But perhaps his most fitting epitaph is something he said during his battle with the Machine:

"I used to be called the world's fastest human — I have never run from a fight."

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune
A version of this article appeared in print on March 27, 2016, in the News section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline "Owens' teammate beat his biggest opponent - the Chicago Machine" — Today's paper | Subscribe
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