At USC names of racists come down, the name of an anti-Semite stays up
As a national reexamination of monuments and memorials of flawed heroes moves along, the University of Southern California has accelerated its own efforts, aimed at past leaders whose credentials may appear ugly in the spotlight of today.
Prominent among potential targets: racists. Not so prominent: anti-Semites, a fact that has many on campus concerned.
Already, a major building on its Los Angeles campus has been relieved of its namesake, Rufus B. von KleinSmid, the school’s fifth president and a leading voice in California’s eugenics movement of the early 20th century.
USC President Carol Folt announced the decision to rename the Von KleinSmid Center for International and Public Affairs last month as part of a six-point plan to “confront anti-Blackness and systemic racism” on the campus. Students and staff widely applauded the move after demanding “actions, not rhetoric,” Folt said. It also came nearly 18 months after the school created a Task Force on University Nomenclature to establish procedures for removing a name on a campus structure.
But neither Folt’s action plan nor the stated goals of the Task Force mentioned anti-Semitism as a predicate for change, an omission that has not gone unnoticed within the USC community.
Steven J. Ross, a USC history professor for more than 40 years, an author and Director of USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of Jewish Role in American Life, said he has written to Folt several times, seeking clarification of her position on anti-Semitism. He has yet to receive a response.
“Race is only a part of it,” he said in an interview. “If you’re looking to have the university represent American democracy, American openness and welcoming of immigrants, you can’t focus on any one group. If you’re prejudiced against one group, you’re prejudiced against all groups.”
Neither Folt nor other USC leaders were made available for comment. The school said in a statement, “USC believes strongly in the importance of mutual respect, and condemns all expressions of hatred directed against any individual or group. The Task Force on University Nomenclature is looking at buildings, monuments, and symbols across campus through this lens.”
Ross and others concerned about silence on anti-Semitism have focused on Cromwell Field, home to the university’s track and field team since 2001. Its namesake, Dean Cromwell, USC’s track coach from 1909 to 1948, was involved in one of the most controversial episodes in the history of the Olympics, one with anti-Semitic overtones.
Cromwell was the assistant coach of the US track and field team at the 1936 Berlin games, presided over by Adolph Hitler whose aim was to showcase Aryan supremacy. As the host country, Germany won more medals, 89, than any other country. The US was second, with 56.
On the first day of competition in the 400-meter relay, the US coaches, Lawson Robertson of the University of Pennsylvania and Cromwell, replaced two of the four scheduled runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, the only Jews on the track team, with the team’s two black stars, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. Owens and Metcalfe were assigned to run the relay with two white athletes, Foy Draper and Frank Wykoff, both from USC.
The US foursome was heavily favored to win the gold medal no matter who was running, and it did, winning the final the next day in a world-record time.
Prior to the first round of the relay, the US coaches gathered the team and said Germany had been saving better runners for the event and so the US needed faster runners in Owens, who had already won three Olympic gold medals, and Metcalfe. Rather than replace Draper and Wykoff, they replaced the two Jewish runners.
In his autobiography, “The Fastest Kid on the Block,” published in 1996, Glickman wrote: “Owens spoke up, telling Robertson, ‘Coach, let Marty and Sam run, they deserve it. I’ve already won three medals. I’m tired. They haven’t had a chance to run, Let them run.’”
Then, he wrote, “Cromwell spoke up harshly. He pointed a finger at Jesse and said, ‘You’ll do as you’re told.’”
Glickman, who was 18 at the time, didn’t buy the explanation for the switch — then or later.
“What the American coaches said was a complete lie, a fabrication, made up to get the two Jewish kids off the team,” he said in a videotaped interview in 2000.
“The story is,” he went on, “Joseph Goebbels contacted Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee, and suggested that Adolph Hitler would be displeased if Jews ran in his Olympic games, and so the two Jews were dropped. No question, we would have won.”
“It was 64 years ago,” Glickman said then, “and I’m still angry about it.”
In a long post-competition career, Glickman became one of New York’s most celebrated announcers, calling games of the Knicks, Giants and Jets. He died in 2001 at age 83.
Stoller discounted prejudice as the reason for the switch, telling reporters later that the coaches — specifically Cromwell — wanted “their pupils” to run with Owens and Metcalfe. Stoller died in 1985.
Brundage, the American Olympic committee president from 1928 to 1953 and a member of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, was widely viewed as a Nazi sympathizer and later became a member of the America First Committee, whose members included well-known anti-Semites Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh.
Cromwell always denied that the Nazis had pressured the American coaches to remove the Jewish runners, making them the only members of the entire American team not to compete in Berlin.
Later that year, he alluded to the episode at a luncheon event in San Pedro. An account in the San Pedro News Pilot of Sept. 25, 1936 said, “Mr. Cromwell said the American coaches probably made a few errors in their decisions, despite the fact that more championships were gained than in previous meetings of the games.”
Researching his most recent book, “Hitler in Los Angeles,” a history of Nazi activity in southern California before and during World War II, Ross said he found another post-Olympics account of Cromwell speaking, at the German Day Picnic in Von Hindenburg Park, a section of Crescenta Valley Park in Glendale that had been named for the president of Germany who appointed Hitler as chancellor in 1933. The area had been a site for pro-Nazi rallies.
The reference came from the files of Leon Lewis at Cal State Northridge. Lewis was the first national secretary of the Anti-Defamation League and leader of a spy organization that infiltrated Nazi operations in the LA area in the 1930s and 1940s.
Ross said the files indicated Cromwell “told people the Olympics were wonderful and blamed ‘boys of the wrong nationality’ for complaining about the exclusion of Jews from the Olympic team.’”
Cromwell coached track athletes who set world records in 17 events and won 12 Olympic gold medals. He died in 1962.
For many years, USC had a reputation of being unfriendly to Jews, driving down Jewish enrollment. That began to change under Steven Sample, the USC president from 1991 to 2010. In 2002, he told the Los Angeles Times, “There was this very explicit, studied, intentional effort to dramatically improve the academic strength of the undergraduate student body, and that meant going out and getting the best students, wherever they may be — and some of those are Jews.”
As part of the effort, the admissions office hired a woman whose job was to recruit Jewish students to enroll.
In the decades since, USC has become a more sought-after school by Jewish students, reflecting years of “work to make it a thriving campus for Jewish students,” said Dave Cohn, executive director of USC Hillel. For the academic year ending this spring, USC had 20,500 undergraduates, about 10 percent of them Jewish, Cohn said, with about three-quarters of them active in Hillel.
Students identifying as blacks and African-American made up 5.3 percent of undergraduates.
While he applauded Folt’s decision to remove Von KleinSmid’s name from the Public Affairs Center and the new spotlight on confronting campus leaders with a questionable history, Cohn said Jewish students are less focused on name removals than efforts to keep the campus safe and welcoming for Jewish students.
“We are at a moment especially challenging to reconcile and reckon with issues of equality and justice that impact us in a variety of ways,” he said, adding, “I shared in celebrating USC’s announcement of remove Von KleinSmid’s name, but I also wondered about the omission of any reference to anti-Semitism in the announcement.”
Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles