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

The huge stadium where U.S. Open championships are won and lost is named for a tennis great who transcended the court and sport itself. In "Arthur Ashe: A Life," author Raymond Arsenault examines the athlete's journey and the connection between race and sports in his career. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • 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:

    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:

    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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