The Curator's Corner: vol 1
Arthur Ashe, Hall of Fame Class of 1985, was not just an athlete, but a civil rights pioneer. Like Althea Gibson before him, Ashe helped pave the way for diversity in tennis. The first African American man to win the US Open (1968) and Wimbledon (1975), Ashe began his career playing in the segregated south and then under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Dr. Robert Johnson. After a successful high school career, Ashe was given a full scholarship to UCLA to play tennis, and shortly after, played on both the amateur and professional circuits.
As he was establishing himself as a star, Ashe also embraced civil rights causes, by applying to play in tennis tournaments at segregated clubs and by playing tennis in apartheid South Africa. After his retirement from tennis, Ashe wrote A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African American Athlete.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement during a time of radical change in the United States. On January 15th (January 18th, observed), we mark the 87th anniversary of King’s birth. King worked to change race relations in the country through non-violent protest, the power of words, and advocacy.
In early 1968, Hall of Famer, Arthur Ashe was asked by Reverend Jefferson Rogers “to speak at the Church of the Redeemer in Washington, D.C. on the role of the black athlete in the wrenching changes taking place in American society." Reverend Rogers, was an intelligent, influential black man deeply concerned with trying to merge religious conviction with the imperatives of race consciousness and progressive politics. In response to Ashe's decision to speak, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this letter thanking Ashe, as he wrote “for your expression of support and solidarity in the fight for justice, freedom and dignity for all people in this country.”
The letter reads, in full:
Dear Mr. Ashe,
I would like to express my personal appreciation and that of my co-workers in SCLC for your expression of support and solidarity in the fight for justice, freedom and dignity for all people in this country.
Rev. Jefferson Rogers, a long-time and staunch freedom fighter, has spoken to us several time of your basic devotion and dedication to the movement. Your eminance in the world of sports and athletics gives you an added measure of authority and responsibility. It is heartening indeed when you bring these attributes to the movement.
If we can ever be of assistance to you, do not hesitate to call upon us. I look forward to the pleasure of meeting you in person when the opportunity presents itself.
Yours for freedom,
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just two months after writing this letter commending Ashe, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th. Learn more about Dr. King and his legacy here.