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Arthur Ashe: U.S. Sport's Greatest Black Icon?

By Paul Gittings CNN | 9/19/2013, 7:12 a.m.
Tennis hero, inspiring role model for African Americans, social activist and high-profile campaigner for the HIV and AIDS communities, Arthur ...
Born in 1943, Arthur Ashe was brought up in the segregated South in Richmond, Virginia and first tested his tennis skills on a blacks only playground in the city.

Only in 1992 was he forced to go public and true to his ideals began campaigning to debunk myths about AIDS and the way it is contracted.

He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of Aids to build on the work of an institute he had set up to promote public health.

Ashe completed his memoir Days of Grace, finished shortly before his death on February 6, 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

For Blake the book was an inspiration. "As soon as I read Days of Grace it has always been my answer to what's your favorite book of all time," he told Moutoussamy Ashe.

Young officiated at Ashe's funeral in Richmond, which was attended by thousands of mourners. He was buried alongside his mother, Mattie, who died in 1950 when he was just six years of age.

Later in the year that he died, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

It was the first of a string of high profile honors in recognition of a truly remarkable man, but for his widow, who has carried his torch now for so many years, it is his impact on communities and the younger generation which is so important.

"I think if Arthur were here today, he would promote tennis on a grass roots level, drawing that metaphor that tennis not just a sport but more importantly a profession that might be able to get you a college scholarship to get you through school," she said.

Others like Blake and Mal Washington followed in Ashe's footsteps on the male side of the men's game, but Moutoussamy Ashe is equally delighted by the impact the Williams' sisters have had on African American sport.

"Venus and Serena, I'm so proud of what they are both doing. Venus has her challenges yet she's moving her life forward and still stays very involved in the game of tennis whenever she can.

"Serena has been I think on top form, not just in tennis but as a person during this particular U.S. Open," she added, reflecting on the World No.1's 17th grand slam crown.

Moutoussamy Ashe is hoping the Arthur Ashe Learning Center, which contains a wealth of her own photographs and memorabilia collected over his life, can find a permanent home.

"It's really important that not just today's generation but generations to come understand him as more than just an athlete, as more than just a patient, as more than just a student and a coach.

"That they'll understand the importance of being a well-rounded human being, that you might not be a great champion but if you're a well-rounded human being then you can do just about anything to succeed in life."

Ashe himself is the perfect example of that, battling his modest background and an undercurrent of prejudice to achieve the highest honor that can be bestowed on an individual in the United States.

"Racism is not an excuse to not do the best you can," Ashe said and he stands eloquent testimony to the truth of his words.

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