Arthur Ashe represented 'the possibilities of life.' A new film explores the tennis great's legacy
Tennis legend Arthur Ashe died in 1993 — but to this day, he’s the only Black man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. and Australian Opens.
The new documentary “Citizen Ashe” explores how he used his fame to promote civil rights and later AIDS awareness. In one clip, he reflects on how stoicism helped him to cope with racism.
“Some people say that my notion or feelings of self-sufficiency go too far,” he says. “I think I can almost withstand just about anything.”
Arthur Ashe’s younger brother, Marine Corps veteran Johnnie Ashe, says their father instilled a set of values in his sons that served the boys well in their careers. Arthur Ashe Sr. knew his sons would face struggles growing up as Black boys in Richmond, Virginia — the former capital of the Confederacy.
“He was my big brother. When daddy wasn’t around, he was the enforcer, and I say that with a giggle because of his mild-mannered nature. But he knew what daddy expected of us,” Johnnie Ashe says. “And he, of course, helped me with homework, checking my vernacular.”
Many fans might not know Johnnie Ashe played an important role in his brother’s successful tennis career: Johnnie Ashe volunteered to do a second tour of duty in Vietnam so Arthur Ashe wouldn’t have to go into combat.
For Johnnie Ashe, taking his brother’s place in Vietnam was a simple choice. He didn’t want his brother to experience the frontlines of war.
“I had known from an early age that Arthur was more than just a tennis player. Tennis was a catalyst for him,” he says. “I knew that Arthur was going to make his mark in the world one way or the other.”
In 1968, Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Open. He is still the only Black man who has ever won that tournament.
After the win, Johnnie Ashe recalls getting a call from his brother where Arthur Ashe said, “I’m a champion now and people will listen to me.”
“What that told me was tennis was still a vehicle in his life. It wasn’t the end-all,” Johnnie Ashe says. “And that in my mind justified everything that I did.”
Arthur Ashe went on “Face the Nation” shortly after he won and explained how other Black athletes and leaders at the time were using their power to enact change.
“If you happen to be Black in these times — maybe not 30 years ago, but in these times, 1968 — there’s really a mandate that you do something. You must … ” he said. “It’s just simply saying to myself, ‘Arthur, you must do something. You just cannot sit by and let the world go by.’ ”
In the early days of his career, Arthur Ashe chose not to get involved with the civil rights movement or speak out like many other professional Black athletes at the time.
That’s because the tennis star wasn’t ready yet, his brother says. His statement on “Face the Nation” shows that he took time to think about how he wanted to use his voice, Johnnie Ashe says.
“Being Arthur, he had to pick his time,” Johnnie Ashe says. “He wasn’t going to do it because somebody else said, ‘You need to do it.’ He had to do it his way.”
Arthur Ashe became active in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, calling for boycotts and demanding that a stadium get desegregated before he would play there. Spending more time in the South African ghettos than he did on the tennis court, Arthur Ashe made an impact in the country, Johnnie Ashe says.
“[Arthur Ashe] wanted the young South Africans to see what a free Black man looked like. He wanted them to see the possibilities,” his brother says. “And when you think about it, that’s what Arthur has always represented — the possibilities of life.”
One of the final chapters of Arthur Ashe’s story is his battle with AIDS after a blood transfusion in the 1980s. The athlete tried very hard to keep it private.
The diagnosis devastated the family in some ways because so little was known about the virus at the time, Johnnie Ashe says.
“He knew his time in life would be cut short,” Johnnie Ashe says. “But what that actually did, it caused Arthur to quicken the pace, to do the things that he had thought he might want to do.”
After his diagnosis, Arthur Ashe got involved with the American Heart Association, founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, and started lecturing kids more often, his brother says.
Instead of feeling defeated, Johnnie Ashe remained hopeful that doctors would find a cure in time to save his brother and did anything he could to help him. Very few people knew about the diagnosis — not even their father before he died, Johnnie Ashe says.
Arthur Ashe Sr. had heart problems, and Arthur Ashe didn’t want to add to his father’s lifelong stress and anxiety, Johnnie Ashe says. Arthur Ashe worried about how the stigma around the virus would impact his wife and daughter, but his sexuality was never in question, his brother says.
In what may have been the tennis great’s final public statement, Arthur Ashe debunked stigmas around AIDS at the Connecticut Forum in 1993.
“There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done with the public to assure them that ordinary contact with people like myself poses absolutely no danger to them,” he said. “I can sneeze in their presence. I can cough in their presence. We can drink out of the same glass. We can use the same knife, fork or spoon. We can kiss. And you’re not going to transmit the virus.”
At that point, taking on the role of an activist wasn’t anything new to Arthur Ashe. From winning his first tennis tournament in his hometown to the U.S. Open, “Arthur’s life was quiet activism,” his brother says.
“Activists try to influence people and I hope they do it for the right reasons,” Johnnie Ashe says. “But Arthur living the life that he lived was pure activism without him saying a word.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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