Tennis legend Arthur Ashe died in 1993 – but to date he is the only black man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the US Open and Australia.
The new documentary “Citizen Ashe” explores how he used his fame to promote civil rights and later AIDS awareness. In a clip, he reflects on how stoicism has helped him cope with racism.
“Some people say my notion or feeling of self-sufficiency goes too far,” he says. “I think I can almost take just about anything.”
Arthur Ashe’s younger brother, Marine Corps veteran Johnnie Ashe, says their father instilled a set of values in his sons who have served the boys well in their careers. Arthur Ashe Sr. knew his sons would face hardship 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 executor, and I say that with a chuckle because of his gentle nature. But he knew what Dad wanted from us, ”says Johnnie Ashe. “And he, of course, helped me with my homework, to check my vernacular.”
Many fans may not be aware that Johnnie Ashe played an important role in his brother’s successful tennis career: Johnnie Ashe volunteered for a second tour of duty in Vietnam so that Arthur Ashe did not don’t have to fight.
For Johnnie Ashe, taking his brother’s place in Vietnam was a simple choice. He didn’t want his brother to face the war front.
“I knew from a young age that Arthur was more than just a tennis player. Tennis was a catalyst for him, ”he says. “I knew Arthur was going to make his mark in the world one way or another.”
In 1968, Arthur Ashe won the US Open. He is still the only black man to have won this tournament.
After the win, Johnnie Ashe remembers getting a call from his brother where Arthur Ashe said, “I’m a champion now and people will listen to me.”
“What told me it was tennis was still a vehicle in his life. It wasn’t the end,” says Johnnie Ashe. “And that in my mind justified everything I did.”
Arthur Ashe continued “Face the Nation” shortly after his victory and explained how other black athletes and leaders of the time were using their power to bring about change.
“If you happen to be black then – maybe not 30 years ago, but then, 1968 – there really is a mandate for you to do something. You have to… ”he said. “It’s just saying to me, ‘Arthur, you have to do something. You just can’t sit back and let the world go by. “
Early in his career, Arthur Ashe chose not to get involved in 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, her brother said. His statement on “Face the Nation” shows that he took the time to think about how he wanted to use his voice, says Johnnie Ashe.
“Being Arthur, he had to choose his time,” says Johnnie Ashe. “He wasn’t going to do it because somebody else said, ‘You have to do it.’ He had to do it his way.
Arthur Ashe has become active in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, calling for a boycott and demanding that a stadium be broken up before he plays. Spending more time in South African ghettos than on tennis courts, Arthur Ashe made an impact in the country, says Johnnie Ashe.
“[Arthur Ashe] wanted 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 stood for – the possibilities of life.”
One of the last chapters in Arthur Ashe’s story is his battle with AIDS after a blood transfusion in the 1980s. The athlete tried very hard to keep this private.
The diagnosis devastated the family in some ways, as so little was known about the virus at the time, says Johnnie Ashe.
“He knew his time in life would be cut short,” says Johnnie Ashe. “But what it really did, it made Arthur pick up the pace, do the things he thought he wanted to do.”
After his diagnosis, Arthur Ashe became involved with the American Heart Association, founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for Defeat AIDS, and began lecturing children more often, his brother says.
Instead of feeling defeated, Johnnie Ashe was hopeful that the doctors would find a cure in time to save his brother and do whatever he could to help him. Very few people knew about the diagnosis – not even their father before he died, says Johnnie Ashe.
Arthur Ashe Sr. had heart problems and Arthur Ashe didn’t want to add to his father’s stress and anxiety throughout his life, says Johnnie Ashe. Arthur Ashe worried about the impact of the stigma around the virus on his wife and daughter, but his sexuality was never in question, his brother says.
In what may have been the great tennis player’s last public statement, Arthur Ashe debunked the stigma surrounding AIDS at the Connecticut Forum in 1993.
“There is still a huge amount of work to be done with the public to assure them that ordinary contact with people like me presents absolutely no danger to them,” he said. “I can sneeze in their presence. I can cough in their presence. You can drink from the same glass. We can use the same knife, fork or spoon. We can kiss. And you are not going to transmit the virus.
At this point, taking on the role of an activist was nothing new to Arthur Ashe. From winning his first tennis tournament in his hometown to the US Open, “Arthur’s life was one of quiet activism,” his brother says.
“Activists try to influence people and I hope they are doing it for the right reasons,” says Johnnie Ashe. “But Arthur living the life he lived was pure activism without him saying a word.”