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Arthur Ashe’s legacy of activism more important than his historic US Open victory

In 1968, he was among the iconic athletes who put others before self

Arthur Ashe Jr. was the Jackie Robinson of tennis.

Some make the case that Althea Gibson is Jackie.

Gibson became the first African-American tennis player to win Grand Slam events, winning them in 1957 and 1958. She was a lonely warrior who chose not to embrace the role of an activist.

Ashe made history on Sept. 9, 1968, when he defeated Tom Okker to become the first black man to win a major tennis title.

Arthur was Jackie because he believed in using his platform to rattle chains, albeit with quiet dignity.

“Arthur was the one who took on that role as an activist, like Jackie Robinson did,” Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, said during a recent conversation.

We were discussing how best to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ashe’s historic victory in a way that connects with young people.

The truth is, at the time, the historic moment went over my head. I had celebrated my 18th birthday seven days earlier, was adjusting to life as a freshman at Morgan State College and was preparing for a football game against Grambling at Yankee Stadium later that month.

I did not realize then, but Ali was having a profound impact on Ashe’s evolving sense of what it meant to be a black athlete. Ashe said that Ali “was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athletes’ responsibility to get involved.”

Besides, Muhammad Ali was the magnet for me, beginning in 1964 when he upset Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. A year earlier, Ali, a year older than Ashe, had refused to be inducted into the Army.

Then, in the fall of 1968, the event that captured our attention involved a pair of sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, whose black-gloved demonstration on the victory stand at the Mexico City Olympic Games became one of the most iconic images in sports.

Ashe — mild-mannered, an Army lieutenant and a star in a sport that seemed foreign to me — did not register.

I did not realize then, but Ali was having a profound impact on Ashe’s evolving sense of what it meant to be a black athlete. Ashe said that Ali “was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved.”

Both men appeared on the cover of mainstream publications in 1968.

Ali was on the cover of Esquire in April 1968, while Ashe appeared on the July cover of Life.

The lesson for me was that there were multiple ways to face and fight the revolution.

Like Jackie Robinson, Ashe was compelled to observe unofficial codes of conduct to make himself palatable to the mainstream. Ashe was conditioned to never question a line call, never confront anyone on the court. He was compelled to turn the other cheek.

Ashe’s outward manners belied a relentless tenacity to force change.

I met him for the first time in 1989. He wanted to form an athletics association designed to teach young African-American athletes about citizenship and responsibility. Arthur wanted to start at the junior high and high school levels because he recognized that, with increasing professionalization, youth sports were the place where values became twisted and ethics hijacked by financial and other interests.

Ashe envisioned that the association, founded as the African American Athletic Association (4-A’s), would expose young black men and women to the responsibilities that come with being an athlete and how to use their platforms to effect change.

We held our first symposium as an organization at Madison Square Garden in May 1993, three months after Arthur died.

Arthur would be proud of the civil rights movement in sports that continues to grow, despite efforts to bully and silence those who protest police violence and mass incarceration. Now, 27 years after the formation of the 4-A’s, athlete activism has focused national attention on issues of justice and injustice in black and brown communities.

In fact, there is a direct line from Arthur’s activism, which included protests of apartheid, to Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice in 2016.

Kaepernick was 4 years old in 1991 when Ashe formed the 4-A’s. He is now the face of the movement and the face of a Nike ad campaign lauding game-changers and those who resist.

As the United States Tennis Association celebrates the 50th anniversary of Ashe’s breakthrough, the organization should use this time to revisit and refresh Arthur’s legacy as well as ask itself whether its values in 2018 align with those for which Arthur stood.

The stadium that bears Arthur’s name at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center now has a massive dome that can be seen for miles. The name on the dome belongs to Chase and carries the Chase logo. That means millions of dollars in naming rights.

Ashe, I believe, would be OK with this.

“We need to get the history from 50 years ago to help empower these young people to move their lives forward in this terrible climate,” Jeanne Ashe said.

He always had wealthy donors among his circle of friends and sphere of influence. He knew how to move between those worlds, and more than that, he knew how to move donors from charity to justice.

But do the donors and corporations that wish to align themselves with the Ashe name know the values for which Arthur stood?

The focus of the anniversary should not be on what Arthur accomplished — there are movies and books about that — but on what athletes should do today in the spirit of Arthur Ashe.

At a time when so many young people find themselves trapped in a dreadful maze of poverty and prison, they need to know about a principled man who found a way out of the maze.

“We need to get the history from 50 years ago to help empower these young people to move their lives forward in this terrible climate,” Jeanne Ashe said.

“If we don’t tell this story right, we’re not doing our neighborhoods or our kids any justice or service whatsoever.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.