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How winning the U.S. Open gave Arthur Ashe the spotlight to speak out against injustice

November 5, 2019


JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Open tennis tournament
continues this week for its 50th anniversary and the — and the Open arrow, which marked
the beginning of players winning prize money. Sorry about this. I’m having trouble reading. Jeffrey Brown looks at the legacy of the first
men’s champion there, Arthur Ashe, and the lessons his career in his life still offer. JEFFREY BROWN: When the world’s greatest tennis
players compete at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York, this is the Mecca, the
huge stadium where championships are won and lost. It’s named for a tennis great who transcended
the court and sport itself, Arthur Ashe. RAYMOND ARSENAULT, Author, “Arthur Ashe: A
Life”: He said it over and over again. If the tennis champions were all that I leave,
I have left nothing, that he wanted to leave a legacy and he wanted other athletes to that
take it as an example. JEFFREY BROWN: The story is now told in a
new biography, “Arthur Ashe: A Life,” by Raymond Arsenault. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: I know how difficult it
was, frankly, to do justice to him, because his life is so complicated, so many layers. JEFFREY BROWN: Arsenault, a historian at the
University of South Florida and author of numerous books on the American South, joined
us at this year’s Open, with reminders of Ashe all around, from a photographic exhibit
to a virtual reality film and display about his rich life. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: It’s my first sports book. JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: I have been a sports nut
all my life. JEFFREY BROWN: A sports nut? RAYMOND ARSENAULT: Yes. JEFFREY BROWN: But a historian, why is this
a good subject for a historian? RAYMOND ARSENAULT: Well, for me, it was the
connection between race and sports. I had always been struck by that. Race was always at the center, I think, of
his — his sense that he had — he really had to change the world. JEFFREY BROWN: Born in 1943, Ashe grew up
in segregated Richmond, Virginia, next to the city’s largest blacks-only park, which
was managed by his father, Arthur Sr. It was here the young Arthur first hit tennis
balls. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: He never, for example,
could play at Byrd Park, which was the major white part where the good tennis courts were. He was not a man to have a grudge or to get
angry. But he said the thing that really stuck in
his craw is, he’d be somewhere in the world later in his life when he was famous, and
someone from Richmond would come up to him and say: “Oh, Arthur, we’re so proud of you. And back in Richmond, I can remember seeing
you play at Byrd Park when you were a boy.” And, of course, he knew he never played at
Byrd Park. JEFFREY BROWN: The pencil-thin young Ashe
was accepted and tutored by Robert Johnson, whose tennis camp in Lynchburg, Virginia,
helped open the sport to many African-Americans. But, there, the lessons in race relations
continued. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: Johnson always said: “If
you see the ball, your opponent hits it, and it’s just out, you call it in. We don’t want…” JEFFREY BROWN: You call it in? RAYMOND ARSENAULT: You call it in, right. “We cannot afford an incident. You’re the first black to play in these mixed-race
tournaments. If you screw it up, there will probably never
be another.” And so he grew up with that. But I think it was his way. He was a paragon of sportsmanship, of civility. However, as I did my research, I discovered
over and over again that there was a kind of tumultuous inside, that, in many ways,
he was a driven man. JEFFREY BROWN: He would win a tennis scholarship
to attend UCLA and became the first African-American to represent the U.S. on the Davis Cup team,
an international tennis competition. In 1968, at age 25, and still in the U.S.
Army as a 2nd lieutenant, Ashe won the first U.S. Open, and he was the first and still
only African-American man to win the tournament. It would change his life forever. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: As he said, it gave him
a platform. “People now will listen to me.” And so a week after… JEFFREY BROWN: You mean he realized that then? RAYMOND ARSENAULT: Oh, absolutely. JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: A week after he won, he
was the first athlete ever invited on “Face the Nation.” So there he is, little Arthur Ashe, 25 years
old, holding forth on questions of education and race. And he was very poised. ARTHUR ASHE, Professional Tennis Player: If
you happen to be black, in these times, maybe not 50, 30 years ago, but in these times,
1968, there’s really a mandate that you do something. You must. And there are other athletes and other black
leaders, period, who are using their — their positions of power and influence to the wield
some practical progress. So it’s just simply saying to myself, Arthur,
you must do something. You just cannot sit by and let the world go
by. JEFFREY BROWN: He did write — and you go
into this — how he — feeling shame, really, that while others were fighting injustice
and social causes, he was playing tennis. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: Yes. He said: “As my fame increased, so did my
anguish.” And I think a lot of what he did, why he was
so driven, it’s making up for lost time. JEFFREY BROWN: Two other Grand Slam titles
followed, the Australian Open in 1970, and a 1975 upset over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. But now it was Ashe, the civil rights act
activist and public intellectual, who more and more galvanized the public’s attention,
and fully took over when heart disease and quadruple bypass surgery forced him to retire
at age 36. He was active in the fight against apartheid
in South Africa and in this country worked to bring better athletic facilities to black
youth and protested on behalf of Haitian immigrants trying to enter the U.S. He was criticized at times by some African-American
leaders for not being more militant and aggressive enough in his stance, but, says Arsenault: RAYMOND ARSENAULT: He took the weight of the
world on his shoulders, even though he knew there were certain things he couldn’t do. He had to do it his way, kind of this calm,
deliberative style, never losing his cool, never raising his voice. That was who he was. JEFFREY BROWN: Ashe would also write a three-volume
history of African-American athletes titled “A Hard Road to Glory,” plus regular newspaper
columns and memoirs of his own experience. In 1988, Ashe was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS,
a result of blood transfusions during one of his heart operations. He and his wife, Jeanne, chose to keep it
quiet, not speaking publicly until 1992, to head off a news report. ARTHUR ASHE: It put me in the unenviable position
of having to lie if I wanted to protect our privacy. No one should have to make that choice. JEFFREY BROWN: Ashe became an ambassador for
AIDS awareness and compassion. ARTHUR ASHE: 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. JEFFREY BROWN: Arthur Ashe died in 1993 at
49 of AIDS-related pneumonia. Ray Arsenault has no trouble imagining the
man who would be 75 today. RAYMOND ARSENAULT: Today, obviously, he’d
be taking a knee for justice with Colin Kaepernick and the others, because he felt so… JEFFREY BROWN: You think he would be? RAYMOND ARSENAULT: Oh, I have no doubt whatsoever. He never complained about much of anything. But one thing he did complain about was the
way that athletes were treated as sort of court jesters, that they were entertainers. And he resented that. I mean, he had a mind. He wanted to be taken seriously as a citizen,
kind of active citizenship. His favorite T-shirt was “Citizen of the World.” That’s what he was, from this little parochial
boy in Jim Crow Richmond to the quintessential citizen of the world. JEFFREY BROWN: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m
Jeffrey Brown at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York. JUDY WOODRUFF: What a great memory.

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