The Color Line: Arthur Ashe, Still Waiting on Black Athletes to Heed His Call to Glory

Article excerpt

On Feb. 6, 1993, Arthur Ashe's heroic battle with AIDS came to an end. The tennis legend died in New York at the age of 49, five months shy of his 50the birthday.

Arthur was both a friend and a mentor. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of his death, I'm concerned that the essence of his legacy will be buried beneath the wrong historical markers. Two weeks after Arthur's death, a memorial was held in New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There were kind words and touching tributes form hundreds of friends and admires. But the remarks that resonated the most were made by Arthur's niece, Luchia Ashe.

After listening to speaker after speaker talk about how her uncle had touched so many lives, Luchia challenged those whose lives had been touched to pay tribute to his memory in deeds, not words. "Accept the challenges," she said. "Eradicate man-made fences." A decade later that challenge remains a steep hill most of us have chosen not to climb.

History will say that Ashe was a champion tennis player and a celebrity. He won the U.S. Open in 1968 while still an amateur. Two years later, he won the Australian Open, and in 1975, he upset the heavily favored Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon. Ashe was (and still is) the first and only Black man to have won any of these championships.

But first and foremost he was an activist. His vision was that athletes, especially African American athletes, would play a pivotal role in shaping a society in which they command an increasingly visible presence on the global landscape.

Ashe constantly preached that African American athletes had to stop hiding from their responsibility to address hard social issues. He chided Michael Jordan for his neutrality on social issues and scoffed at the excuse that high profile athletes who remained silent were actually working for change behind the scenes.

The essential currency of the athlete is inspiration. Performance inspires us to transcendent moments. Ashe believed athletes should use their visibility and prominence to percolate a consciousness that has been dulled by a preoccupation with the pursuit of money.

Ashes view of the athlete's latent power was echoed in November, when The New York Times, in an editorial, called on Tiger Woods to stay away from the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National this spring to protest the club's exclusion of women from membership.

As an officer assigned to the Army Adjutant Generals Corps at West Point, Ashe was outspoken in defense of civil rights. His 1968 speech to a Washington church group about protests planned by militant Black athletes at the Olympics in Mexico City was criticized by the West Point superintendent as too political.

In 1985, Ashe was arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., during an anti-apartheid protest. In fact, it was his public arrest in front of the White House in 1992 that inspired at least one athlete to act.

Two months after Ashes death, basketball player Olden Polynice stood in a downpour outside the Krome Detention Center in Miami to visit Haitian refugees who were being detained. He was inspired to become more active after watching Ashe being arrested in Washington while protesting the first Bush Administration's policy on Haiti.

"That's what really got me going," he said. "Emotionally, I have a tie with Haitians because I'm one of them. But Arthur Ashe didn't know them. This is about giving of yourself."

Polynice was raised in housing projects in Manhattan and felt that too many of his colleagues in the NBA were running away from their roots. …