Patricia A. Turner, who heads UCLA’s celebrated Arthur Ashe Legacy Fund, reflects on Ashe in the aftermath of George Floyd.
On September 9, 1992, tennis great Arthur Ashe was convinced. The conscience of the sport felt that civil disobedience was the only way to call attention to the profound unfairness of the U.S. Coast Guard’s interception of refugees fleeing Haiti on ramshackle boats headed to the US, where they could escape persecution and seek asylum.
With his trademark aviator glasses, tennis shoes, light khaki pants, and smart white straw fedora, Ashe’s ensemble seemed perfect for a day at one of the grand Slams where he was a familiar celebrity. The only thing that would have been out of place was the T-shirt on top of his polo shirt, which read, “Haitians Locked Out Because They Are Black.”
In other words, years before Black Lives Matters mattered to so many, Ashe marched. In front of the White House, he joined with famed dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham, civil rights icons Randall Robinson and Benjamin Hooks, and 2,000 others who wore shirts and carried signs that essentially said, “Black Lives Matter.”
Clearly this chapter in American and tennis history overlaps with the present. What Ashe and the others wanted for the Haitians was access to the American system of immigration and determination of refugee status. America’s military had inserted itself into Haitian politics in ways that disadvantaged its poorest citizens, many of whom tried to flee from political oppression, only to be forcefully stopped at sea. This was in stark contrast with the treatment afforded Cuban refugees, and in his lyrical memoir, Days of Grace, Ashe states, “I was certain that race was a major factor in this double standard.” Lack of access to a legitimate and fair process and a double standard are what enrages so many of today’s protestors. George Floyd was innocent until proven guilty and entitled to a reasonable arrest procedure. For many of us, it seems highly unlikely that, had he been a white man, he would have been subjected to such an unnecessarily brutal and ultimately fatal apprehension.
In addition to risking his considerable reputation, Ashe was taking a very real physical risk by marching and perhaps being jailed with others. The pandemic then was AIDS, and Arthur was already afflicted. His immune system was weak, and proximity to others could have been catastrophic. Still, he marched.
Arthur was careful about the causes he took on. Like many who now protest, he didn’t take to the street for a photo op. Ashe himself had worn a military uniform during his time in ROTC. In the 1960s, he erred on the side of caution, a decision he later questioned. The Reverend Jesse Jackson had asked Ashe’s UCLA friend and fellow athlete Walt Hazzard to set up a meeting so that he could try to persuade the young phenom to use his visibility to advance civil rights causes. Ashe declined, saying he preferred to advance the cause of African Americans in his own, more quiet fashion.
But when Arthur became convinced that the channels of politics and commerce failed to protect black men and women, he bravely and thoughtfully took to the streets. In 1985, when he was America’s Davis Cup Captain, he protested apartheid outside the South African Embassy in Washington. While Colin Kaepernick’s inability to return to the NFL is a more famous example of blacklisting, Ashe didn’t serve as Davis Cup coach for very long once he became known as an anti-apartheid activist.
Arthur succumbed to AIDS-related complications within six months of his final protest. Throughout his powerful biography Days of Grace, his deep love of his country is clear. But as his life progressed, he was increasingly unwilling to stay quiet while black people were preemptively de-valued. So, wearing a righteous T-shirt, he marched peacefully in the streets, taking a risk that he felt would advance a critically important cause.
Thirty years later, searing racism and physical violence against African Americans have compelled activists to raise their voices, risk their health, and join protests across our nation. Let’s hope that individuals and institutions who have disregarded the worth of black people will now listen, learn, and change.
Patricia A. Turner is senior dean of the UCLA College and vice provost of UCLA’s Division of Undergraduate Education. She also is a professor in World Arts and Cultures and African-American Studies.