The greater game: Arthur Ashe, apartheid, and civil rights activism, 1943--1993

Eric Allen Hall, Purdue University


"The Greater Game" examines the life of African-American tennis player Arthur Ashe from his birth in 1943 to his death from complications of the AIDS virus in 1993: specifically, his athletic career, his involvement in the Black Freedom Movement (BFM), his connections to human and civil rights activism in the United States and South Africa, and his gradual integration into a community of black activists and intellectuals in the United States and abroad. This study uses Ashe's life history to illustrate how African-American athletes have influenced the BFM, on the one hand; and, how civil rights leaders and government officials attempted to appropriate Ashe's public image to satisfy their own political agendas between the late 1960s and early 1990s, on the other. ^ Denied a visa to compete in the 1969 South African Open because of antiapartheid statements he made to the press, Ashe was one of several athletes whose activism helped spark the antiapartheid movement in sport. He made several trips to South Africa as a player and journalist throughout the 1970s and 1980s, each time drawing the world's attention to the living conditions of black Africans under apartheid. Unlike many leaders of the Black Power Movement in the United States and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, Ashe believed in open dialogue and debate with white officials in both countries, a strategy which led radicals in each nation to label him an "Uncle Tom" and a race traitor. ^ "The Greater Game" examines how Ashe's athletic career put him in an immediate position to influence the BFM and how American sport contributed to the breakdown of apartheid in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. As an outspoken leader who had few formal political connections but who was well aware of the major civil rights issues and organizations of the day, Ashe was ideally situated to appeal to multiple constituencies on both the political left and right. ^ This study argues that the sport of tennis, Ashe's family background, his increasing celebrity appeal, and his constrictive status as an officer in the U.S. Army led him to a strand of activism that I label "moderate militancy." This "moderate militancy"—a philosophy that embraced the teachings of Ashe's mentors as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Maulana Karenga, and other leaders of the BFM—allowed him to reach a greater international audience, black and white, than other perceived black radicals.^




Randy W. Roberts, Purdue University.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Biography|History, Black|History, African|History, United States|South African Studies

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