STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, if you were watching men's singles 50 years ago, you would have seen Arthur Ashe become the only African-American man to win the U.S. Open. Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team reports on a player who grew much larger than tennis.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Back in 1968 at the U.S. Open, pretty much everything on the court was white except Arthur Ashe.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Arthur Ashe 15 days ago won the National Amateur title in Boston. Now he's trying to win the Open.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 30-15.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And his first of what I'm sure will be many aces.
BATES: Ashe and his powerful serve would go on to defeat Tom Okker of the Netherlands. He was released from the Army after two years as a data processor, and former Lieutenant Arthur Ashe Jr. soon turned pro. Raymond Arsenault, author of the new biography "Arthur Ashe: A Life," says 1968 was a watershed for Ashe.
RAYMOND ARSENAULT: He did great things before 1968, was one of the greatest players in the world already. But as a human being, as someone who transcended sports, it begins in '68.
BATES: 1968 was a tumultuous year. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. Protests against the Vietnam War had escalated. Early on, Arthur Ashe Sr. had warned his son to, quote, "stay away from that civil rights mess." And for a time, Arthur Jr. did. But he began to speak out about black athletes' responsibility to their communities, and he criticized the war that he said was costing so many young black and brown men their lives. Here's Ray Arsenault.
ARSENAULT: I mean, he was never an agitator. He was very unemotional in his advocacy and his activism. But he was absolutely determined to have an impact on the broader world.
BATES: After he retired in 1980, Ashe wrote several books and op-eds about athletes and race. He pressed to dismantle apartheid in South Africa and defended the rights of Haitian refugees. He started inner-city tennis clinics for black children here and abroad. But Ashe was considered a hero far beyond sports. When Nelson Mandela, freshly released from prison, came to the United States in 1990, Ray Arsenault says...
ARSENAULT: He said, the first person I want to meet is Arthur Ashe.
BATES: Their friendship would last for the remainder of Ashe's life. His busy life as an author, lecturer, op-ed writer and social activist began to slow in the late '80s when Ashe had surgery for a suspected brain tumor. Four years later, he made this pained announcement to stunned reporters.
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ARTHUR ASHE: I have known since the time of my brain operation in September 1988 that I have AIDS. It was transmitted through a blood transfusion after one of my open-heart bypass operations.
BATES: Far from the shunning he feared, though, Ashe was embraced as he added AIDS advocacy to his social justice portfolio. Even in his last days Ashe persisted.
ARSENAULT: You know, he's literally on his deathbed. And he asked them to call the new president, you know, Bill Clinton, and to make sure that he appointed a really strong civil rights advocate for attorney general.
BATES: Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. died on February 6, 1993, of AIDS-related pneumonia. He was 49 years old. Since that time, many memorials have been erected in his honor, including Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the U.S. Open has been played since 1997. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF YAYA'S "ROADS")[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION:In a previous audio version of this report, we incorrectly said that the tennis balls used at the 1968 U.S. Open were yellow. In fact, they were white.]
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