Black athletes continue legacy of fighting for equality

The Arthur Ashe statue stands on Monument Avenue. Photo by Jon Mirador

Joe Dodson, Staff Writer

Athletes around the world utilized their platforms last summer to invoke social dialogue regarding racial justice. The killing of George Floyd in May sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and brought many to call for change. Floyd was an unarmed Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody after an officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck. 

Although social media can be used to amplify social activism, many athletes have long advocated for equality through history. These athletes are key figures in both sports history and American history for the ways they used their platforms to demand change. 

Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe, a native of Richmond, burst onto the tennis scene in 1963 when he became the first Black man named to the United States Davis Cup team. 

In 1968, Ashe became the only player ever to win both the United States Amateur Championships and the U.S. Open championship in a single year. Ashe was the first Black man to win the Australian Open singles title in 1970, as well as the first to ever win the Wimbledon singles title in 1975.

Ashe was also an accomplished doubles player. Ashe and Marty Riessen won the 1971 French Open doubles title. In 1977, Ashe teamed up with Australian Tony Roche to win his final Grand Slam in the Australian Open doubles match. 

Off the court, Ashe fought for racial equality. In 1969, Ashe was denied a visa to travel and compete in the South African Open due to the country’s strict apartheid policies that enforced racial segregation. He then advocated for the International Lawn Tennis Federation to expel South Africa from the federation. 

Ashe was allowed to participate in the South African Open in 1973. Although many boycotted the South African competition, Ashe believed he could break down stereotypes through tennis and proceeded to play in the match. He also was a member of a delegation of 31 prominent African Americans who visited South Africa in 1991 as the country began racial integration.

Ashe retired from the sport in 1980 with 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles. 

In retirement, he continued to advocate for civil and human rights, as well as educating the public about AIDS. Ashe contracted the illness in 1983 after receiving a blood transfusion during a heart operation.

After his death in 1993, Ashe was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton for his contributions to tennis. 

Althea Gibson 

Althea Gibson broke racial and gender boundaries in tennis and golf. Her athletic career, which spanned from the 1940s until the 1970s, was full of many firsts.

Gibson struggled to break into the female amateur tennis circuit in the ’40s because many clubs that hosted tournaments were exclusive to white people. In 1950, after retired pro tennis player Alice Marble wrote a letter to the American Lawn Tennis magazine, Gibson became the first Black player invited to the United States National Championships — known as the U.S. Open. 

By 1952, she was ranked No. 7 in the nation and became the first Black person to play and win at Wimbledon in 1957, winning both the singles and doubles titles. A year earlier, Gibson became the first Black person to win a Grand Slam when she won the singles event at the French Championships. 

Gibson was awarded Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958 by the Associated Press. Tennis was not a professional sport for women at the time, so Gibson made little money throughout her tennis career. 

Her career in the predominantly white sport was her form of protest, paving the way for athletes like Serena and Venus Williams.  

“For me, she was the most important pioneer for tennis. She was Black, she looked like me and she opened so many doors,” Serena Williams told the Women’s Tennis Association in their profile on Gibson.  

Gibson retired from amateur tennis at the peak of her powers in 1958 due to monetary issues. She finished her tennis career with 56 national and international titles. 

In 1964, she became the first Black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. She faced discrimantion since many clubs did not allow her to compete, and the ones that did didn’t allow her to change in the clubhouse. 

Once she retired from golf in 1978, she was hired as the New Jersey Commissioner of Athletics. Gibson held the position for 10 years and was the first woman to hold such a position in the U.S.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 

The former six-time NBA MVP has been an activist voice for racial equality since before his professional basketball career. 

While at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar was the youngest member of the Cleveland summit, a committee of notable Black athletes who supported boxer Muhammad Ali when he refused to be drafted into the military in 1966 due to his religious beliefs and opposition of the Vietnam War. The movement was led by former NFL running back Jim Brown.

In 1968, one year before he was selected first in the NBA draft, Abdul-Jabbar boycotted playing in the Summer Olympics as an act of anti-racism protest. He converted to Islam in 1968 and changed his name from Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. to the Arabic name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Like Ashe, Abdul-Jabbar used literature as a way to tell the story of African Americans after he retired. He has written over 15 primarily historical books including “Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes” and “Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievements.”

Former President Barack Obama awarded Abdul-Jabbar the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

“He stood up for his Muslim faith when it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t popular,” Obama said at the White House ceremony. “He’s as comfortable sparring with Bruce Lee as he is advocating on Capitol Hill or writing with extraordinary eloquence about patriotism.” 

The all-time NBA scoring leader continues to be a steady voice in social justice through his role as an opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times. Abdul-Jabbar wrote several articles this past summer in support of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. 

“You can’t be in the business of social reform without a deep reservoir of hope and faith in the general goodness of people,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a July 7 op-ed.

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