Arthur Ashe always had an exquisite sense of timing, whether striking a topspin backhand or choosing when to speak out for liberty and justice. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the 50th anniversary of his victory at the first U.S. Open — celebrated last week at the grand stadium bearing his name — coincides with a national conversation on the First Amendment rights and responsibilities of professional athletes.
Ashe has been gone for 25 years, struck down by AIDS, inflicted by an HIV-tainted blood transfusion. But the example he set as a great champion on and off the court has never been more relevant. As athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James strive to use their athletic stardom as a platform for social justice, they might want to look back at what this soft-spoken African-American tennis star accomplished during the age of Jim Crow and apartheid.
The first thing they will discover is that, like most politically motivated athletes, Ashe turned to activism only after his formative years as an emerging sports celebrity. He began his career as the Jackie Robinson of men’s tennis — a vulnerable and insecure racial pioneer instructed by his coaches to hold his tongue as long as the success of desegregation was still in doubt.
The calculus of risk and responsibility changed in 1968, as 25-year-old Ashe reinvented himself as an activist. With his stunning victory in the U.S. Open, where he overcame the best pros in the world as a fifth-seeded amateur, he gained a new confidence that affected all aspects of his life.
Ashe’s new attitude reflected a determination to make amends for his earlier inaction. "There were times, in fact," he recalled years later, "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." He added: "As my fame increased, so did my anguish."
The 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy shook Ashe’s faith in America. But he refused to surrender to disillusionment. Instead he dedicated himself to active citizenship on a level rarely seen in the world of sports.
His activism began with an effort to expand economic and educational opportunities for young inner-city blacks, but later turned to the liberation of black South Africans suffering under apartheid, promoting higher educational standards for college athletes, criminal justice reform, gender equity and AIDS awareness.
By the end of his life, Ashe’s success on the court was no longer the primary source of his celebrity. He had become, along with Muhammad Ali, a prime example of an athlete who transcended the world of sports. In 2016, President Barack Obama identified Ali and Ashe as the sports figures he admired above all others — "transformational" activists who pushed the nation toward freedom and democracy.
Ashe practiced his own distinctive brand of activism, one based on unemotional appeals to common sense and ethical principles as simple as the Golden Rule. A champion of civility, he always kept his cool and never raised his voice in anger or frustration. Viewing emotional appeals as self-defeating and even dangerous, he relied instead on reasoned persuasion.
Ashe preferred to make his case either as a writer or as a speaker on the college lecture circuit. His periodic pieces in the Washington Post and other newspapers tackled thorny social issues, and in the 1980s he devoted several years to researching and writing A Hard Road to Glory, a groundbreaking three-volume history of African-American athletes.
Suspicious of quick fixes, he advocated incremental change. Yet he did not let this commitment to long-term solutions interfere with his determination to give voice to the voiceless. Known as a risk taker as a player, he was no less bold off the court. He was arrested twice, once in 1985 during an anti-apartheid demonstration, and again in 1992 while protesting against the Bush administration’s discriminatory policies toward Haitian refugees. The first arrest embarrassed the American tennis establishment, which soon removed him from his position as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team, and the second took place during the final months of his life as he struggled with AIDS.
Ashe was a class act in every way, a man unfazed by the temptations of power, fame or fortune. When we place his approach to dissent in a contemporary frame, his legacy looms as the antithesis of the bullying tactics and insulting rhetoric of a president determined to punish athletes who have the audacity to speak out against police brutality toward African-Americans.
Not all of the activist athletes involved in public protests during the past two years have followed Ashe’s model of restraint and civility. But many have made a good-faith effort to do so, resisting the temptation to respond in kind to attacks on their personal integrity and patriotism. The most visible activists — Colin Kaepernick, Stephen Curry and LeBron James — have kept their composure and dignity even as they have borne the brunt of Donald Trump’s racially charged Twitter storms and speeches.
They have taken the same high road that Ashe took two generations ago, and were he alive today he would be gratified that this high road has led to more protest, not less, confirming his belief that real change comes from rational advocacy and hard work, not emotional self-indulgence. As we celebrate his remarkable life and legacy a quarter century after his death, we can be confident that he would join today’s activists in spirit and solidarity, solemnly but firmly taking a knee for social justice.
Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is the author of "Arthur Ashe: A Life."
© 2018 New York Times