Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era

When he died from AIDS in 1993, Arthur Ashe was universally hailed as a man of principle, grace, and wisdom–a world-class athlete who had transcended his game. But a closer look at Ashe’s life reveals a more complex picture. Certainly, Ashe was an admirable figure. When tennis tournament organizers barred the teenage phenom because of his race, Ashe maintained his dignity. Decades later, when he was teaching a university course on African Americans in sport, Ashe couldn’t find a suitable textbook. So he researched and wrote one himself. At the same time, however, Ashe’s views on civil rights initially were more in line with those of Booker T. Washington than those of other politically active athletes of the 1960s. He did not accept the equality of women in sports. And his position on competing in South Africa under apartheid went through a long evolution. On these issues and others, Arthur Ashe had plenty of critics-something that is often missed today.

Surprisingly, despite his pioneering role in the history of tennis and his involvement in a range of pursuits off the court, Ashe has not been the subject of a scholarly biography. Eric Allen Hall’s book, Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era (Johns Hopkins University, 2014) fills this gap. As Eric explains in the interview, Ashe was a unique athlete in that he left his personal papers to a research archive. His biography thus draws not only from press accounts of Ashe’s life and the tennis star’s own memoirs (he wrote four during his lifetime), but also from Ashe’s notes and letters. The result is a portrait of Arthur Ashe that shows the fullness of his character-his broad interests, his impressive talents, and his missteps.