August 12, 2022

Born in 1943, Ashe grew up in the segregated south of Richmond, Virginia. He first picked up a racquet at the city’s black-only municipal tennis courts. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a tennis scholarship, and in 1963 became the first African American to represent the United States in the Davis Cup.
But CNN’s film “Citizen Ashe” focuses on an underappreciated aspect of Ashe’s illustrious career: her role as an activist and civil rights advocate.
Harry Edwards – sociologist, educator, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and producer of documentary films – was also a confidant of Ashe. He spoke in the film about the legacy of his late friend, who was not only one of the greatest players in his sport, but also a committed advocate for social justice.
Edwards is one of the leading authorities on African Americans in sports. He is perhaps best known for his founding role in the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which orchestrated the historic Black Power Salute demonstration at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City by track and field athletes Tommie Smith. and John Carlos. He is also the author of “The Revolt of the Black Athlete”, a seminal work on black activism on the playing field and in the sports arena.

CNN opinion writer Stephanie Griffith interviewed Edwards about his decades-long friendship with Ashe and the tennis great’s legacy as a humanitarian and activist. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

CNN: Over time, Arthur Ashe has become one of your closest friends, but you were decidedly unimpressed with him at first. The film shows that before you really got to know him – when he was a student at UCLA and in his early days as a professional tennis player – you were put off by his reserved attitude and somewhat conservative personal style. What brought about the change in the way you perceived it?

Edwards: When I first approached Arthur Ashe in 1968, I knew him, of course. He was already a great tennis player and I knew him from my work as a sports scholar. But I didn’t know Arthur Ashe personally.

He was often in those white lily clubs. He was the only black tennis player in most of the events he participated in. When I approached him about supporting the Olympic Human Rights Project, he said, “I respect what you’re doing. I understand what you are doing. , but that’s not my way.”

I was put off by him. But as I got to know him better, I realized that, like so many people, I had prejudged him. I had presumed to know him too soon.

CNN: And how was the real Arthur Ashe?

Edwards: First of all, he was absolutely brilliant. Second, he was brave – more than some of the most militant people of the time. He had a sense of character that was rare. As most of us raised our fists, he reached out – not just to his friends, but to his adversaries. He was a person with a vision. While many of us talked about Pan-Africanism, he practiced it with his activism in South Africa.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – and Arthur practiced it. He could see the connection between what was happening in South Africa and what was happening here, and he organized athletes and artists in this country to fight injustice in South Africa. He broke the color barrier by participating in a tournament in South Africa.

He protested against racism here and abroad. He clearly saw the connection, but he would not be deterred – let alone derailed – from his commitments, due to the trajectory and substance of the Black Power movement unfolding at the time.

It took me a while to assimilate all this. But ultimately, over the years, I haven’t had a more valuable ally, mentor, or associate than Art. He would call me in the middle of the night sometimes on the phone just to talk.

CNN: What would he have thought of the fact that although there are a number of black female tennis players, there remains a singular figure, in terms of black American Grand Slam tennis champions?

Edwards: I think Arthur understood the environment in which he moved. He fought whatever battles he could win on race issues. But the issue of black male participation (in tennis) was a bridge too far.

There’s a reason you haven’t had another black tennis player of Arthur Ashe’s stature until now. Everything that has taken place in terms of creating progressive nature change involving race in America has been transactional.

And while he started and participated in programs aimed at generating opportunities in tennis for black men and women rising through the ranks, he lacked the transactional influence to make it happen on his own.
For example, it wasn’t the fraternity that got Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball. It was business: there was a labor shortage following World War II that Branch Rickey – the shrewd businessman that he was – understood. So it’s a complicated ground we tread when we start trying to understand race relations in sport.

Nothing in the realm of social justice happens simply because it is morally correct, constitutionally appropriate, or ethically right. Arthur was aware of this. He and I talked about it — about him literally being alone his entire career.

CNN: And you would say the same thing that applies to black athletes in a sport like golf, where there really hasn’t been a lot of diversity either?

Edwards: Absolutely. I mean, at one point people were talking about how Tiger Woods was going to open this and that and the other for black golfers and so on. I knew at the time that was nonsense.

There is no transactional leverage that would result in this: the white golf structure is quite content to be able to point to Tiger Woods and perhaps one or two other golfers further down the status and rank chain who find themselves be black. But there won’t be a pipeline of black golfers like there was a pipeline of black people getting into basketball, or a pipeline of black people getting into football.

CNN: You talked about how your feelings evolved over time, in terms of your understanding of who Arthur Ashe was. But I guess he too has evolved over the years?

Edwards: Absolutely. Arthur, I think, has not only become a committed, courageous and conscientious lawyer. He became more militant in his later years. Even when he knew he was dying, he was arrested during a protest.

It wasn’t something that was really part of his character in his early years. He was a lawyer, he sought reason and rational resolution by reaching out not only to his friends and those who agreed with him, but reaching through the barricades to those who disagreed. with him. He believed with sincere conviction in reasoned discussion – that it is always better to reach out than with a clenched fist.

But as he got older, he became more convinced, I think, that activism had its virtues. And he began to exhibit more – even to the point of being arrested in protests at the end of his life.

He was interested not only in racial, ethnic and gender relations in America, but also in the world. His fight for fairness and justice in South Africa was so determined and so powerful that when they asked Nelson Mandela (in 1990) who would he like to be there when he got out of prison, his answer was: “How about Arthur Ashe?”
CNN: There is a clip in “Citizen Ashe” that shows Barack Obama talking about the athletes who inspire him the most. He named two: Arthur Ashe and Muhammad Ali. Ali makes almost everyone’s list. Why do you think people don’t mention Arthur Ashe’s name more often?
Edwards: Because they don’t know him, and because they claim to know him. But Arthur was a deep dive. He wasn’t like (civil rights activist) Stokely (Carmichael). He wasn’t like Malcolm X. He wasn’t even like Dr. King.

Arthur was a deep dive into who he was, what he was, what he stood for, what he believed in – and he had the courage, the commitment, the intellect to pursue it. And most people don’t travel based on deep dives; they move based on first impressions. But as I got to know him, I realized he was part of the pantheon of immortals when it came to 20th century sports activism.

I put him in the same pantheon with Bill Russell, with Elgin Baylor, who left the game in 1960 for discrimination and racism in the south while playing with the Los Angeles Lakers. I put him in the same category, of course, as Muhammad Ali, Smith and Carlos, Jackie Robinson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar – all those great militant athletes.

He is part of that pantheon of sports personalities who have had an impact beyond the arena. Arthur is there with them.