Today I want to acknowledge a man of many firsts on the tennis court and who had a passion for social justice and civil rights: Arthur Ashe.
52 years ago today, on September 9, in 1968, Arthur Ashe become the first Black man to win a grand slam in tennis.
At the inaugural U.S. Open Tennis Championship in New York, Arthur Ashe defeated Tom Okker of the Netherlands to win the championship and make history.
This was not Ashe’s first time achieving a historic “first”…Before Ashe became the first Black man to win a Grand Slam, he was also the first Black player to win a National Junior Indoor tennis title, the first Black man to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tennis Champion, and the first Black man to represent the US in the Davis Cup.
His tennis legacy is still one that has yet to be matched: Ashe remains the only African-American man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian Opens
I know of Arthur Ashe because my Mom constantly watches tennis and has an appreciation for the players and sports. I would dare say that my Mom holds Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Serena Williams, and Venus Williams (among others) in the highest of highs.
Like my Mom, my appreciation of Arthur Ashe has to do with his athletic achievement but much more with his achievements off the tennis court.
Ashe was a champion in tennis, yes, but he was also a champion of civil rights!
He grew up in Jim Crow South in Richmond, Virginia. Black people in the Jim Crow South were victims to layered violence and hatred, be it implicit or explicit.
Black boys and Black men, particularly, faced a difficult layer of Jim Crow South as there was a constant push to strip Black males of their masculinity, force them into submission, and push the idea of worthlessness, all the while Black men are being lynched and Black leaders are being assassinated.
While playing and practicing tennis, Ashe experienced intense racism and verbal abuse; as a child it was playing/practicing on segregated courts and as he got a bit older it was being called the n-word while practicing in country clubs.
It reminds me of Jackie Robinson and I am reminded of the internal strength the two had to possess to endure all that and still be able to advocate for other people.
I appreciate Ashe’s authenticity when it came to him to speak up for issues other than tennis. It was not easy to speak against racial injustice and racism in the 1960’s. It still isn’t easy for us in 2020!
He was described by Many described Ashe as a “quiet” person and Ashe admitted himself that he did not always speak up when he should have. However, Ashe quickly recognized his power and influence and decided to courageously use his platform to advocate for social justice.
“There were times, in fact, when I felt a burning sense of shame that I was not with other blacks—and whites—standing up to the fire hoses and the police dogs, the truncheons, bullets, and bombs that cut down such martyrs as Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, Viola Liuzzo, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers and the four little girls in that bombed church in Birmingham, Alabama. As my fame increased, so did my anguish.”Arthur Ashe
It is incredibly obvious that many of today’s athletes agree with Ashe’s 1968 statement.
That’s why we are seeing athletes like Colin Kaepernick, Lebron James and the rest of the National Basketball League, Greg Popovich, Naomi Osaka, the National Women’s Basketball League, NASCAR,Candace Parker, and so many other athletes and organizations, taking on the mantle of being more than just an “athlete”.
Both Ashe and Robinson provided a blueprint for being an activist and athlete.
The story of Arthur Ashe is one that shows us we have the power to withstand and endure. Ashe contracted AIDS after receiving contaminated blood in a blood transfusion for a surgery. He endured and his advocacy included social justice, racial justice, and AIDS treatment and information, political engagement and so much more. His advocacy continued until his death.
I could write so, so much more on Arthur Ashe, his story is one that deserves to be celebrated more. His legacy has surpassed tennis.
Ashe shows us all that the time is always right to speak up for what is right, just, and true. I too believe that is never really “too late” to speak up! We do not have to be a professional athlete to feel charged with speaking up; we all have platforms (no matter the size) to utilize.
We all have it within us to endure and we have grace that allows us to recognize now is the time to speak up.
Arthur Ashe made history today and went on to leave us a legacy worth embracing, celebrating, and to look to for inspiration as we build our own legacy.