Cool warrior on the court of activism

Arthur Ashe saw his activism in the arenas of civil rights and AIDS awareness as more important than his athleticism and groundbreaking accomplishments on the tennis court.

A hero doesn’t choose the fight. Rather, the fight chooses the hero, who then chooses to accept and engage it with grace and courage.

Arthur Ashe “was one of the great figures of the 20th century,” says Raymond Arsenault, author of a monumental new biography of the onetime Armonk resident who died at age 49 in 1993. Ashe was a man who saw his activism in the arenas of civil rights and AIDS awareness as more important than his athleticism and groundbreaking accomplishments on the tennis court. Today he serves as the spiritual father to Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and Steph Curry.

Ashe had an Apollonian cool that stood in vivid contrast to the Dionysian fire of Muhammad Ali led some to label him unjustly as an Uncle Tom. 

“I have come to feel he was like (former President Barack) Obama, with a wry sense of humor and a certain self-protection,” says Arsenault, a leading civil rights historian who is the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. “Friends have described him as cool, collected, a paragon of civility. He believed deeply in activism, pushing for social change. But he hated emotionalism in public, believing that when people get emotional, they lose their way.”

Ashe’s reserve and intellectual rigor could make him a challenging interview, as this reporter found on several occasions. But the press also knew that amid the social turbulence of the 1960s through ’80s, you could always turn to him for clarity on the issues of the day. He was the steady tiller in the storm.

That role was partly the result of his genetic makeup, the dynamics of his family and the precariousness of growing up black in a Jim Crow South — specifically Richmond, Virginia, capital of the former Confederacy — that was about to see enormous changes.

At about the same time segregation was falling with the birth of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, Arsenault says, upwardly mobile blacks were being ushered onto narrow avenues of white acceptability. They were seen as natural entertainers or athletes — in what Arsenault calls a “romantic racism” that was more insidious but no less dangerous than overt racism.

“Only a few athletes escaped that,” he says. “Arthur Ashe was one of them.”

A painstaking researcher, Arsenault paints a detailed portrait of the two rigid disciplinarians who were the architects of Ashe’s escape — his father, Arthur Sr., manager and security guard of Brook Field Park, Richmond’s largest black park; and Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Sr., who dedicated himself to developing black junior players at a kind of tennis boot camp and to desegregating the sport. In Ashe — who had learned the game at Brook Field from collegiate player Ron Charity — Johnson found a willing pupil, one who strove to compensate for his slight build by hitting 1,000 tennis balls daily before breakfast. 

There was another, more poignant figure in Ashe’s early years — his tenderhearted mother, Mattie, who died amid the complications of her third pregnancy, leaving 6-year-old Arthur and baby brother Johnnie, an extroverted toddler, motherless. The trauma of her death spurred the aloofness that would characterize Ashe in later years.

And yet, the reader can’t help but conclude that this remove — together with his natural athleticism and intellectual curiosity — contributed to Ashe’s trailblazing career in one of the most individualistic of sports. He was not the first black athlete to succeed in it. That distinction goes to another Johnson protégé, Althea Gibson, who won 11 Grand Slam titles. But, Arsenault says, “she didn’t want to be a symbol.” Ashe, who became the first and only black man to win the US Open in 1968 — the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated — picked up the mantle. 

A UCLA graduate and Army officer who headed the tennis program at West Point, Ashe was the first athlete to appear on CBS’ venerable newsmagazine “Face the Nation.” He wrote the three-volume “A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete” and was instrumental in the anti-apartheid movement, boycotting tournaments in racially divided South Africa after initially thinking he could engage that nation on integration by playing there.

Reviewing Arsenault’s book in The New York Times, Touré praised it as “a deep, detailed, thoughtful chronicle of one of the country’s best and most important players,” adding, “I wanted to hear more, though, about Ashe’s game and what sort of player he was on the court.” 

Arsenault — author of books on the Freedom Riders and contralto Marian Anderson — acknowledges that he approached his subject, over a nine-year period, from a civil rights perspective. 

“I love tennis,” says Arsenault, a Sunday-morning doubles player “on the soft courts of the St. Petersburg Tennis Center,” “but the book is more about how Ashe used tennis as a platform.”

Still, there is much to consider in a career of firsts — first and only black man to date to win singles titles at the Australian and US Opens and at Wimbledon, where he electrified Jimmy Connors and the crowd in 1975; and the first black player and only black captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. Few fans will forget the moment in which a drenched, drained John McEnroe — having defeated Mats Wilander in a six and a half-hour 1982 Davis Cup quarterfinal match, thus ensuring America’s place in the semis and, as it turned out, the cup victory — collapsed in Ashe’s arms in tears. 

“The Wilander match was one of the greatest moments in Ashe’s career,” Arsenault says. Even the stunning 1975 upset of Connors couldn’t compare, he adds, because for Ashe it was less about him winning as an individual and more about the success of team U.S.A.

The two Davis Cup stalwarts were an odd couple — the cool Ashe, the fiery McEnroe, whose antics were not about gamesmanship, Arsenault says, but about the quest for tennis perfection. 

“In the years since Arthur’s death, John has always been there” to support Ashe’s charitable interests as well as his legacy, which includes the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens.

But it was more than that:  Each complemented the other. Indeed, in Ashe’s book “Days of Grace,” Arsenault notes, he wrote that he would’ve given anything to be McEnroe for 24 hours to know that kind of expressivity.

It was not his nature, though. And so when he was forced in 1992 by a forthcoming USA Today article to reveal he had AIDS — which he acquired in a tainted blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery in 1983 — he channeled his anger into AIDS awareness and other causes. Even as he was dying, he still took part in a protest outside the White House against the George H.W. Bush administration’s treatment of Haitian refugees.

Talking about Ashe’s contributions to the world, large and small, Arsenault asks:  “Who does this?”

A hero who responds to the fight.

Raymond Arsenault’s “Arthur Ashe:  A Life” (Simon & Schuster, 767 pages, $37.50) is available wherever books are sold. For more, visit The Arthur Ashe Legacy at UCLA and the Arthur Ashe Endowment for the Defeat of AIDS at 

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