- Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era by Eric Allen Hall
Throughout his well-researched and nuanced monograph, Eric Hall uses a variety of sources, including newspaper articles, NCAA files, personal correspondence, memoirs, and FBI files, to trace the intersection of the personal and political in the life of African American tennis star Arthur Ashe—from his childhood in the Jim Crow South to his US Open victory in 1968 to his death in 1993. Hall shows that even though Ashe cut his political teeth in the midst of the upheaval of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Olympic Boycott movements, his "Bookerite" family upbringing, his experiences as an African American in the conservative, "lily white" sport of tennis, and his military service as an officer in the US Army also shaped his politics as a centrist statesman. Hall argues that Ashe's "evolving approach to activism, located somewhere between moderate and militant integrationism, relied on patience, direct engagement with white leaders in the United States and South Africa, and open dialogue with his opponents and targeted direct action" (3–4).
Hall rightly contends that historians of sport have largely overlooked Ashe because he does not fit the typical description of a black athlete during the late 1960s and 1970s. Much of the existing scholarship on race and sport in this period focuses on the defiant boycotts and protests among African American athletes that Dr. Harry Edwards described as "the revolt of the black athlete." Muhammad Ali and his black nationalist politics loom large in the historiography, in effect overshadowing more moderate athletes such as Ashe. Hall uses Ashe's complicated life story to question what he calls the "either-or approach to classifying black athletes" (3). He maintains that two competing images—the accommodationist/assimilationist "sellouts" versus the militant/nationalist "radicals"—still drive much of the popular and academic scholarship on black athletes. In doing so, Hall calls on sports historians to reconsider the very paradigms that shape our research. He questions our propensity to zero in on the loudest, most bombastic black athletic voices from this period. By extension, his book forces historians to consider how this focus skews our [End Page 652] broader understandings of the political, social, and cultural significance of black athletes in the twentieth century. Black athletes were not always part of the political vanguard; indeed, because of their social mobility as racial pioneers and the high financial stakes of speaking out against injustice, some were far more moderate and far less vocal than the existing literature belies.
Telling stories like Ashe's in all of their complexity and contradiction, as Hall does, is historiographically significant not only in the field of sports history but also in the wider literature of the late twentieth-century black freedom movement. After all, as Hall explains, "most ordinary African Americans … adopted tenets of the civil rights and Black Power movements in arriving at … [their] own form of activism" (4). Their politics, much like Ashe's, usually defied simplistic categorization. Impeccably researched from a diverse array of primary sources, Hall's book provides an important model for more nuanced approaches to the history of black athletes and black social movements.
Hall is at his best as he deftly layers the personal and political dimensions of Ashe's early life and athletic career. For instance, Hall explains why Ashe was relatively silent at a time when other black athletes were revolting. Hall charts Ashe's upbringing in a Southern, male-dominated household marked by a commitment to racial uplift through hard work and following the rules, rather than political activism. From a young age, Ashe had to court white patrons and carry himself with restraint in the "country club" atmosphere of tennis. Hall illustrates that Ashe's experiences at UCLA, particularly his exposure to Civil Rights and Black Power ideologies and leaders raised his political consciousness, forcing him to question the status quo. However, because he was on athletic scholarship and an ROTC cadet, the stakes for speaking...