This week 36 years ago Arthur Ashe, who broke down barriers in his record-breaking career, became the first black man to win Wimbledon. It was July 5, 1975, and his upset over Jimmy Connors shocked the tennis world. That day he became the first black man to ever win any Grand Slam event.
But by the time Ashe had won, he’d already become the first black man to win the U.S. championship, and had already become the first black man to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team. In the span of his impressive career he won 33 singles titles, including three Grand Slam titles.
But those were not the only accomplishments he wanted to be remembered for, nor were they even the most important legacy he left behind when he died of HIV-related complications in 1993. After he retired in 1980 when he was 36 because of heart disease, he turned to youth advocacy work and raised millions of dollars for inner-city athletic centers and the United Negro College Fund. He also founded the African-American Athletic Association, and became an outspoken advocate for raising educational standards of college athletes.
Ashe grew up with segregation, and after being kept out of tennis courts, clubs and tournaments because he was black, he wanted young black athletes to know that many of these sports continued to exploit, if not exclude, their young recruits.
Ashe was also an activist who protested apartheid in South Africa and U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians. In September 1992, six months before he died, he took part in a protest at the White House to picket the U.S. policy of forcing Haitian refugees back to their home country, while Cuban refugees were welcomed into the country.
“The argument behind this policy was that most of the people in those boats were fleeing economic hardship, not political persecution, and therefore had to be sent home at once,” he wrote in his memoir, “Days of Grace.” “This argument incensed me … I was certain that race was a major factor in this double standard.”
Ashe used his celebrity to fight for racial justice, and was an advocate for a multitude of causes. He became a spokesperson for heart health as a result of his heart disease, and after contracting HIV during a blood transfusion, eventually used his celebrity to call attention to HIV and AIDS.
The last chapter of “Days of Grace,” is perhaps the most moving. He uses the final pages of his book to address his daughter Camera, and tries to distill his collected wisdom into words in a letter she can read after he’s gone. He encourages her to live a life of faith and compassion, to expose herself to good art and music, and to never forget her roots. The letter jumps around from family history to meditations on religion, to marriage and love, but ends with tender words he might as well have been telling the world:
“I may not be walking with you all the way, or even much of the way, as I walk with you now,” Ashe wrote in the final months of his life. “Don’t be angry with me if I am not there in person, alive and well, when you need me. I would like nothing more than to be with you always. Do not feel sorry for me if I am gone.”
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