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Arthur Ashe Steadily Shaped Athletic Activism

Arthur Ashe was the first (and only) African-American male to win the U.S. Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon singles titles, working beyond the tennis court through positive activism to heighten awareness of South African apartheid, the rich history of African-American athletes, civil rights, and the early AIDS epidemic.

Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1943, Arthur Ashe was raised with his brother Johnnie, primarily by their father, Arthur Ashe, Sr.  Having lost his mother Mattie to heart disease when he was just six years old, Arthur and his brother followed their father strict discipline schedule, designed to keep them out of trouble, and installed within Arthur a dedicated work ethic. Beginning tennis play at seven years old, Arthur’s natural athleticism quickly allowed him to progress through the amateur ranks of the ATA, his composure, etiquette, and sportsmanship highlighting his victories.  With each success on the court, Arthur worked through the racial segregation of the 1950’s and 60’s, becoming a quiet, steady beacon for African-Americans in the game of tennis. 

Ashe earned a tennis scholarship to UCLA, navigating a successful college and amateur career (while also enrolled in the ROTC), and becoming the first black tennis player ever selected for the United States Davis Cup team.  Ashe enlisted in the Army in 1966, heading to West Point and heading their tennis program. He was promoted to First Lieutenant, and while still considered an amateur athlete, won the first ever U.S Open Tennis Tournament in 1968.

Upon leaving the Army in 1969, the turn to professional tennis was all but guaranteed. Pushing forward with his acclaim from that year’s U.S Open victory, Arthur began a professional tennis career that would push his celebrity further, and his social activism wider.

Ashe’s athletic success led to lucrative endorsement deals with Catalina Sports Clothes, and Head tennis rackets, among others.  At the time, it was rare to see black athletes as the promotional face of products, and Ashe’s success in this area broke more barriers for African-Americans.  Using this expanding fame and widening of audience, Ashe began speaking out on his social views, advocating on a broad range of causes, with perhaps most notably his opposition to South African apartheid.  His tone was one of calm and thoughtful encouragement, steady reform, and a consistent message of fairness for all.

After retiring from tennis in 1980, Ashe continued his advocacy for civil rights, equality in sports, and became a sports commentator and writer. This next step in his life included teaching a class on the history of African-Americans in professional sports.  Discovering that there was no valid, single-source of academic reference for this class, this last point caused him to dedicate six years to writing the three-volume body of work, “A Hard Road to Glory”, chronicling accomplishments of black athletes throughout sport history.

In 1988 Arthur discovered he had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, possibly during his second heart surgery.  Although an outstanding athlete throughout his life, Ash’s family had a history of heart disease, and he was not immune from it.  He publicly announced in 1992 that he was suffering from AIDS, and true to his nature, began advocating for education, research, and understanding of the disease, to help the world eradicate it.  He passed away in February of 1993, months after Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year, well after he’d played his last tennis match.

Arthur Ashe worked beyond his own ambitions to help the world recognize and combat its own racial injustices, gender disparities, and historical short-sightedness.  With athletic accomplishments opening doors for African-American athletes following him, his humanitarian works encouraged everyone who engaged with him, leaving a legacy that opened reach of the athletic spotlight beyond the court.