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Tennis great Arthur Ashe rose to champion status during the civil rights movement, winning three Grand Slam titles in an era when the sport was reserved for the white country-club crowd. But while he broke barriers on the court, he never fully embraced the more radical activism of sports heroes like Muhammed Ali. Later Ashe would fight apartheid in South Africa, despite expectations that he battle inequality closer to home. A new biography explores how Ashe navigated the worlds of sports and activism.
- Eric Allen Hall Author, "Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era;" Professor, History Department Georgia Southern University.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe U.S. Open Tennis men's finals tonight at 5:00, in a stadium bearing the name of tennis great Arthur Ashe. During the civil rights movement, Arthur Ashe broke racial barriers on the court. He was the first African-American player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only black man ever to win the singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, winning three Grand Slam titles, ranking him among the U.S.' best tennis players.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut while he protested Apartheid in South Africa, he was more conflicted when it came to his role in the civil rights and black power movements closer to home. Joining us to discuss the career and politics of Arthur Ashe is Eric Allen Hall. He is the author of the book "Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era." Eric Allen Hall is a professor of history at Georgia Southern University. He joins us from studios at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Savannah. Eric Allen Hall, thank you for joining us.
MR. ERIC ALLEN HALLHi Kojo, happy to be with you. Happy to be talking about Arthur Ashe and not my Chicago Bears.
NNAMDIYeah, I know. They didn't have a good day yesterday. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. What do you know about the life and career of tennis great Arthur Ashe? 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's start with tonight's men's final. As you talk about Arthur Ashe, what is his special connection to the U.S. Open? In an article in the Wall Street Journal, I guess I think a review of this book, he was called the patron saint of the U.S. Open.
HALLWell he has got -- he has a very deep connection to the Open. He made his first appearance at Forest Hills in 1959, when he took on Rod Laver, The Rocket Rod Laver, and was so nervous, in fact, that he vomited before the match. But he was -- he holds the interesting title of being sort of the first person to win the U.S. Open, in 1968. Sixty-eight was the first year that the Nationals merged into the Open, so it was the first time that professionals and amateurs played together at the same time.
HALLAnd in '68, he was an amateur and was able to defeat Tom Okker of the Netherlands to win the Open. And he played and competed in the Open for the rest of his career. He reached the finals in 1972 but fell to Ilie Nastase. But interestingly enough, there were a number of events unrelated to tennis happening at the Open. In 1969, he was engaged in a number of debate with anti-Apartheid protestors at the Open who were objecting to Owen Williams, who was a South African, a white South African who had been given a task of managing the Open.
HALLAnd he took time away from his tennis to really engage in dialogue and debate with a number of anti-Apartheid activists, such as Dennis Brutus, and others. And of course he played the game the way that people sort of expected tennis players to play. He was a gentleman on the court. He didn't throw his racket. He never complained. And, you know, I think that people remember him for that as much as they do what he did on the court.
NNAMDITell us a little about how Arthur Ashe became a tennis player in the segregated parks of Richmond, Virginia.
HALLWell, it was very difficult, as I think anybody would know, to become a tennis player in Richmond. It was a very segregated, Southern city. He actually grew up playing at Brookfield Park, which was a segregated park on Richmond's north side, and learned to play after being taught by a local tennis player at Virginia Union, a player named Ronald Charity. He was eventually discovered by Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, who held a junior development camp in Lynchburg. And he began to attend Johnson's camps in Lynchburg each and every summer.
HALLAnd eventually Johnson struck up an agreement with a local interscholastic tournament to where Ashe would -- to where he could bring African-American players to play. And Ashe was just so incredibly good that he started to win those tournaments, started to win against white players and eventually became not just a top player among African-Americans but a top player among whites, as well.
HALLBut it was especially difficult because he couldn't play in tournaments at Byrd Park, which was the kind of white park in Richmond, where the vast majority of tennis players would play. So he faced a number of obstacles that other athletes simply didn't face.
NNAMDIAnd that bitter residue of segregation and race relations in Richmond continued to linger even after he became famous. When it was decided that a statue of Arthur Ashe should be placed in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, there was significant controversy. Can you talk about that?
HALLSure. There was controversy on both sides.
HALLThere were some people that insisted that, you know, Monument Row was for Confederate generals and was for people from the Confederacy and that there shouldn't be a tennis player, however great he was, along Monument Row with statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. On the other hand, there were a number of people within the African-American community who insisted that his statue should either be placed in a black neighborhood, perhaps on Richmond's north side, or placed at Byrd Park, the very park that he was unable to compete at when he was younger, that that would have made a much more -- a much bigger statement.
HALLOne person who attended a forum on the issue in Richmond made the comment to representatives in the city council that the other men who were on Monument row, Lee and Jackson and others, would've enslaved Arthur Ashe if they would've been around at the same time, that he was simply better than those people on Monument Row, and because of that, he should be placed somewhere else in Richmond.
HALLBut ultimately it was decided that the best place for him was on Monument Row, and his statue stands there now with a tennis racket in one hand, books on the other and children kind of underneath him, which I think speaks to his legacy, that he was more than a tennis player.
NNAMDIIndeed negotiating the racial divide as a famous tennis player is one of the things he stands out for. And the height of his career in the '60s happened to be the height of the black power movement. It was a difficult position for him, which he summed up in this way, quoting here, "the moderate progressives' hero could be the reactionaries' N-word and the revolutionaries' Uncle Tom." He was breaking color barriers on the court. Was it possible at that time to be a black athlete and not be an activist of some sort?
HALLI think it was extraordinarily difficult to keep quiet, to not have something to say about the movement. What's interesting about Ashe, and I think one of the things that comes out of the book more than anything else, is this idea that Ashe really came of age as a tennis player and an activist and an intellectual during a time in which the movement was shifting from sort of civil rights to black power.
HALLHe was an athlete during some of the most major events in the civil rights movement in the black power era. He was playing during assassinations and riots and actions in Birmingham and Selma. And I think for athletes, black athletes especially, there was a lot of pressure to speak out. You saw this when he was at UCLA. He was constantly being asked by his classmates, members of the African Union, to speak out, to use his platform for good.
HALLYou know, I think times have changed a little bit now, though certainly racial tension continues to exist. But during that time, it was very, very difficult to not at least respond in some way to the events that were happening locally and nationally and internationally, quite frankly.
NNAMDII'm thinking about during that time, in 1968, we had the Olympics, where Tommie Smith and...
NNAMDI...raised their arms up in a black power salute, when several basketball players decided that they didn't want to participate in the Olympics. You know, I was introduced to a whole range of African-American athletes when I read Arthur Ashe's book "A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete."
NNAMDIHe later said that that book was more important to him than any tennis titles. And I got the impression that, in a way, that book was his way of making up for anything that he or others felt that he may not have done during the civil rights and black power movement.
HALLYeah, I think that he certainly fashioned himself as an intellectual. I think had he chose not to participate in tennis, he would have been an intellectual. He could have done a number of things with his life. I mean, the origin -- just to kind of backtrack a second -- the origins for the book, "A Hard Road to Glory," come from seminar that he led at Florida Memorial College, where he was going to teach an honors seminar on the black athlete in America.
HALLHe was, you know, maybe 12 to 15 people in that seminar. And he was looking for materials. He was looking for books and articles and different things like that. And he simply couldn't find anything on black athletes. In fact, he found things that said black athletes didn't matter. So that seminar led to him kind of gathering as much information as he could about black athletes. And it led to this project that really lasted through most of the 1980s.
HALLAnd I think, you know, he really felt strongly about that contribution to African-American history, to bring out these African-American voices that weren't kind of the obvious ones, the Muhammad Alis and the Jackie Robinsons and the Joe Louises. You know, he wanted to look at the Tom Molineuxes and some other athletes that people sort of didn't know. And I think -- I'm certainly a sports historian and I think we owe a deep bit of gratitude to Ashe for starting that project and discussing black athletes in a scholarly way.
NNAMDIGot to tell you, I was reading that book that I discovered about Jim Brown's distinguished Lacrosse career, but that's…
NNAMDI…a whole other story.
HALLThat's not unusual for athletes. So Joe Louis had a very good golf career, as well. But people don't really talk about that very often.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll return to this conversation with Eric Allen Hall about his book, "Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era." Eric Allen Hall is a professor of history at Georgian Southern University. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Want to share your memories of Arthur Ashe in the time in which he was playing tennis and about eventually his illness and how he succumbed to it? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Eric Allen Hall about book, "Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era." Eric Allen Hall is a professor of history at Georgian Southern University. He joins us from studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Savannah. You're invited to join the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. How do you think Arthur Ashe contributed to breaking down barriers in sports?
NNAMDIYou can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you go to our website kojoshow.org, you'll find links to Arthur Ashe's books there, also. Now, on to some controversies, Eric. Arthur Ashe did not support women athletes' fight for equality early on. And he famously had a spat with Billie Jean King over his moderate approach to civil rights. Tell us about that.
HALLWell, Ashe -- beginning in sort of the 1970s, tennis grew as a spectator sport. So more money was being infused into the game, larger purses, people were getting quite wealthy off of tennis. At the same time, women were still making, you know, one-tenth of what men were making on the court. They weren't getting sort of center court matches. The men, Ashe included, were refer to Billie Jean King, as others, as girls tennis, would describe sort of tennis as being nice and leisurely for the women.
HALLAshe made a comment at one point that, you know, O.J. Simpson, who at the time was a running back for the Buffalo Bills, would have been able to, you know, compete with women on the tennis court, or wouldn't have felt intimidated by the women's game, whereas, with the men slugging ball around and that sort of thing. Ashe also was of the idea that men needed to play tennis to make money to support their families, and that they needed to be the breadwinners and that, you know, it wasn't sort of up to the women to be taking away money from the men.
HALLSo I mean, when it came to sort of women's right and the women's liberation movement, he was kind of behind the curve. Now, certainly his views evolved over time and when he published "Days of Grace," which was his memoir that came out after his death, he kind of revised that a little bit and talked about how he felt Billie Jean King was the most important tennis player in the 20th century and that he kind of knew, you know, he acknowledged that those views were wrong, but nonetheless, he was not very supportive of kind of women's equality, especially on the tennis court in the '70s.
NNAMDIHe was, above all, a gentleman. Played the game eloquently. But toward the end of his career the new generation of tennis stars had a very different approach. Arthur Ashe later coached the Davis Cup Team, which included both Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, both renowned for their exploits and their antics on the court. What was his reaction to John McEnroe's antics?
HALLHe didn't like them, to say the least. You know, he and McEnroe were opposites in a number of different ways. Ashe had been taught, from the time that he was young, growing up in Richmond, to kind of bottle his emotions, to not show his emotions, to kind of keep quiet, to be disciplined. Whereas, McEnroe was taught to express his emotions. He was taught to kind of be the person that he was.
HALLSo he -- Ashe didn't really like the displays of emotion kind of to begin with, but he especially didn't like the screaming at umpires, the throwing the racket, that sort of thing. But with McEnroe in particular, one thing that Ashe really appreciated with McEnroe -- as opposed to Connors -- is that he believe that McEnroe was true patriot. He believed that McEnroe was somebody who really wanted to win for the United States and he was in the Davis Cup.
NNAMDIAt a time when an increasing numbers of players were in it for the money.
HALLCorrect. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there was the argument made that Jimmy Connors was not participating in the Davis Cup for a number of years because we wanted to make money on other circuits. But McEnroe really was an American patriot. And I think Ashe was able to kind of look past some other things in order to -- because he felt a connection to him on that front. But, I mean, they had all these instances where they would kind of fight, where Ashe would bring McEnroe into his, you know, into his -- into the office.
HALLAnd McEnroe would just sort of sit there and not, you know, accept the scolding, but make it clear that he really wasn't going to listen or really wasn't going to change his ways. I think it was very frustrating.
NNAMDIHe said, "Are you finished?" After…
NNAMDI…Ashe had spoken to him for a while he just looked at him and said, "Are you finished now?"
HALLYeah, I mean, Peter Fleming, another member of the team, told him, point blank at one point, "We don't need advice or coaching. We're stars. We know what to do. Set the lineup and let us play." So I think this was particularly frustrating for Ashe. He was an old-school coach. I mean, he believed in discipline and deference. And these players were showing him, really, none of that. So I think he -- when he left the Davis Cup in 1985, I think he was probably, you know, pretty happy to leave it, if you would ask him.
NNAMDIWell, age and maturity makes a lot of difference, but if you -- because today, if you listen to John McEnroe, the broadcaster of the US Open…
NNAMDI…whenever he talks about Arthur Ashe, he talks about him with a great deal of humility and admiration.
HALLYeah, I think they both respected each other very much. And I think deep down inside Ashe really liked McEnroe. There was an incident all -- there was a time in the early '80s as well, where McEnroe was thinking about playing in South Africa, was offered huge amounts of money to play in South Africa. And he kind of listened to Ashe's pitch and ultimately decided not to play there for the money. And I think he respected him as much for that as anything else that he'd ever done.
NNAMDIIndeed, the motivating civil rights issue for Arthur Ashe turned out to be apartheid in South Africa. Can you talk about why some of his activism on that front was controversial and why he ultimately adopted South Africa as, in a way, his kind of major human rights cause?
HALLRight. Well, just to back up a little bit, beginning in 1969 he applied for a number of Visas to enter South Africa to play in the South African Open. And on three different occasions, up through 1971, he was denied the opportunity to play in South Africa for political and racial reasons. The apartheid government, you know, said that he was a vocal critic apartheid, that he had supported African liberation movements.
HALLAnd he had made a particularly inflammatory comment, where he said he wouldn't mind seeing a hydrogen bomb dropped on Johannesburg, which the government kind of took, you know, they knew it wasn't literal, but they took it literally anyway. So in 1973 he kind of tried some back-channel diplomacy to get into South Africa. Eventually was able to negotiate a Visa. And there were a series of conditions that he was going to have to -- the government was going to have to abide by otherwise he wasn't going to go.
HALLOne was integrated seated at Ellis Park. He wanted people of color and whites to kind of sit together at Ellis Park, for it to be fully integrated. He wanted to meet with a high-level government official in South Africa, which eventually wasn't the prime minister, but it was kind of the number two. He wanted freedom of movement. He wanted to be able to visit Soweto and meet with local South Africans in the townships.
HALLAnd he -- and I think one of the most important things is he would not accept the classification of being an honorary white. Previous to this a number of black athletes had gone to South Africa, but they had accepted this honorary white classification. And Ashe absolutely refused to do that. The controversy in his trip was at the time many, many folks in the anti-apartheid community were calling for an economic and a cultural boycott of South Africa, arguing that if you were to travel there that would essentially legitimize the nationalist government and it would be a step back for the movement as a whole.
HALLSo he faced a lot of pressure externally. When he was in South Africa during that trip, he also met with a number of black journalists who objected to his presence for the very same reason. But what I think is great about Ashe is that he was really -- and not just in this, but in everything -- was really the kind of -- willing to listen to people, was willing to engage in that tough dialogue with people he disagreed with and he was able to kind of have a dialogue that I think a lot of times people don't have.
HALLAnd, you know, I think he chose apartheid because it directly affected him at the time. He was being denied a Visa, but also, he saw the living conditions of people in South Africa as being fundamentally worse than anything he'd seen in the United States.
NNAMDIAfter a severe heart attack in 1979, Arthur Ashe stopped playing professional tennis. I remember at the time there were was a lot of shock on the part of people who could not figure out how an elite athlete could suffer a heart attack. Talk about that.
HALLWell, he -- he's got -- he has a deep family -- if you go look at his family history…
NNAMDIYes, that's what he said.
HALLHe has a deep family history of heart ailments. His father suffered a heart attack very close to the time that he did. His mother died when he was five years old. And, you know, if you kind of back in to the family you can see there were just sort of congenital issues that he was kind of born with. I mean, it really struck people as -- it was a major surprise at the time because he was healthy, he was lifting weights, he was running a lot.
HALLHe didn't smoke. He didn't drink. He didn't do any of the things that would normally kind of bring on heart -- he ate well. So -- but if you go and kind of look at the family history a little bit you can see why this was such a serious, you know, concern for him.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Michelle, who says, "I remember Arthur Ashe's storybook romance and marriage to Jeanne Moutoussamy. Where is she and their daughter now? And what are they doing?
HALLThey are actually at the US Open. I believe, as we speak, they're in New York. She still lives in New York City, is still very, very active with the Arthur Ashe Foundation and with a number of other causes that he had led throughout his life. You know, she's also a very prominent photographer, has a wonderful photography website, is still very, very active in that. And they stay very active. They've kept in touch with a lot of people that he knew throughout his life and a lot of the contacts. And they continue to kind of be a major force for good in this world.
NNAMDIOne wonders how Arthur Ashe, as a tennis star, would have survived in today's intrusive world. Because in many respects he was a very private man. He was diagnosed with AIDS.
NNAMDIThe result of a blood transfusion that he had in 1983. AIDS was not fully understood at the time. In those days it was considered -- it carried a stigma. How difficult was it for him to publicly acknowledge his illness, which he didn't do for quite some time?
HALLI think it was very hard. I mean, you see him really struggling with this over a period of four years. He's diagnosed with not just HIV in 1988, but also full-blown AIDS, which at the time was an absolute death sentence. And what's really kind of cool about the research that I've been able to do -- and I -- is that you can go to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, and look through Ashe's personal papers, which anybody can do.
HALLAnd you see letters written, you know, exchange between him and others between '88 and '92, talking about kind of what's going to happen when one day the press finds out about this. You know, how are we going to get out in front of it, you know. He always said that the reason that he kept it private was for his daughter, that he didn't want AIDS to kind of define him for her. And he also was doing a number of things that he didn't want his life to defined by AIDS, which I think, unfortunately, to an extent, his life's work in other areas has been eclipsed by that very tragic death in 1993.
HALLI think he would have had fun with some of today's technology, Twitter and different forms of social media, but I think he would have -- the kind of paparazzi nature of today's media I think would have been very, very distressing for him.
NNAMDII agree. Despite all of the debate around his "moderate approach to politics," you see Arthur Ashe has having been ahead of his time when it comes to opening dialogue to help blacks and whites better understand one another. Why?
HALLIt think that -- and I think for kind of people in general, the instinct it -- and it even for today's culture -- is to kind of stick to your positions, stick to your argument. Not really see other people's perspectives fairly well. I think with Ashe he was just very willing to kind of understand people. Very willing to sit down and talk to them. And it would not be unusual for Arthur Ashe to have read, you know, scores of books on a particular topic before he would even engage in dialogue with somebody on an issue.
HALLSo if it was a leader of South Africa, if it was Piet Koornhof in South Africa, he would have already read all the literature on South Africa. He would have been able to quote, you know, score and verse about the different conditions and things like that. So in that respect I think he could tell us a lot about, you know, he could really help us a lot in today's society if just, you know, people would listen to each other a little bit more and really try to see the other perspective.
NNAMDIYou focus on African-American history. And about the minute or so we have left, how'd you get interested in writing about Arthur Ashe?
HALLIt was kind of a long story. I grew up in a very diverse suburb of Chicago, a suburb that bordered the south side of Chicago. And I went to school with many African-Americans, many Latinos, people from all kinds of backgrounds, ethnic and racial backgrounds. And I was also a huge sports fan. Played sports in high school. Obsessed about sports. Still do. And one day, actually by happenstance, my wife and I -- my wife is also a history professor at Georgia Southern.
HALLWe were kind of discussing, you know, research topics, like nerdy historians do. And she sort of says to me, "Well, what about Arthur Ashe?" And I -- and my initial response was, "Well, you know, there must be a scholarly biography of Ashe. There must be something already on him." But when I went back and started to do kind of the cursory research I found that, you know, not only is there no scholarly biography of Ashe, which I found shocking, but the few things that were there were several articles and book chapters. And I kind of took it from there.
NNAMDISo you went out and wrote the book, "Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era." Eric Allen Hall is a professor of history at Georgia Southern University. Thank you for joining us.
HALLThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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