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