How Arthur Ashe Transformed Tennis—and Athlete Activism

Having grown up in the segregated South, Ashe became the first black man to win the U.S. Open in 1968. The victory helped him find his voice on a wide array of social-justice issues.


Amidst all the convulsions America experienced in 1968—the shocking assassinations, the violent protests, the atrocities in Vietnam—revolution rumbled even through the genteel world of men’s tennis. The unexpected messenger was a slender, bespectacled 25-year-old Army lieutenant on temporary leave from his post at West Point.

His name? Arthur Ashe.

The revolution Ashe fomented would be felt not only on the court of play, but in broader social and political spheres. He was the Jackie Robinson of men’s tennis, piercing the exclusivity of a lily-white sport and shouldering burdens that tested his character and resolve at every turn. And he emerged at the height of the U.S. civil-rights movement to become the first African-American male to win a Grand Slam. (Ashe, still an amateur in 1968, won the U.S. Openthat year, the first-ever year of the tournament.) But he didn’t stop there. He went on to dominate his sport, to help desegregate it—and then to transcend it, becoming a fierce and eloquent activist for an array of causes, including civil rights, economic empowerment, opposition to Apartheid and AIDS awareness.

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