In the biblical book of Genesis, after Cain murdered his brother Abel, God asked him where his brother was. Cain asked in return, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” For him the answer was obviously “No,” but for another brother from another time, the answer was a resounding “Yes.” During the Vietnam War, this brother willingly risked his life and emotional welfare to protect his brother. Had it not been for the love of a brother, Americans might have never heard of the great tennis player, Arthur Ashe. This is the story of how Johnnie Ashe was Arthur’s keeper and protector.
Arthur Ashe and his brother Johnnie each loyally served their country. Arthur grew up in the segregated city of Richmond, Virginia as the oldest son of an African-American laborer. His mother died from pre-eclampsia just before his seventh birthday, which left his father to raise him and his younger brother. Due to his slight build, his father kept him from playing football. Instead, young Arthur took up the predominantly white sport of tennis. He played at his high school in Richmond but soon moved to St. Louis where more opportunities opened to him. While there, Sports Illustrated recognized him for his performance. After graduating high school, he received a tennis scholarship to UCLA where he was the first African-American selected to join the U.S. Davis Cup Team. He also won the NCAA singles title. At UCLA, he joined ROTC and pledged himself to active military service. Later he received his Army commission and was assigned to the United States Military Academy at West Point where he was a data professor and the head of the tennis program. At the time, he was ranked number two in the sport. His brother Johnnie, meanwhile, was serving as a Marine in Vietnam.
It was 1967, and nearly four hundred thousand Americans were fighting the North Vietnamese communists. Over eleven thousand casualties had occurred. President Lyndon B. Johnson told the American public that the triumph of freedom over communism required the sacrifice of young Americans in the struggle. Like many families, the Ashes were expected to do their part. The two brothers were in the military, but only Johnnie was serving “in country,” as it was called. This was in accordance with an existing Department of Defense regulation, which restricted combat tours to one family member at a time. Both brothers realized that Arthur would likely be deployed when Johnnie’s combat tour ended. In a television interview, Arthur was asked if he ever considered not serving as a protest, but he responded that he had been born in America and believed every American had the responsibility to serve in the military.
Despite his willingness to serve, Arthur Ashe had not yet experienced war first-hand. Johnnie described him as having “a gentle spirit.” After experiencing combat and its hardships, Johnnie did not believe that Arthur would adapt well to the rigors of combat in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Johnnie was close to finishing up his tour of duty and began to consider Arthur’s fate. He had cheered as his brother climbed toward the pinnacle of the tennis world. He knew Arthur had virtually limitless opportunities because of his tennis career, and he believed Arthur should be able to embrace those possibilities. All would be jeopardized if Arthur was sent to combat.
Johnnie understood that military service in Vietnam risked not only Arthur’s death or injury but also the loss of precious time for Arthur to attain his dream. Johnnie determined to do anything he could to keep Arthur out of harm’s way and to safeguard his future. In reality, there was only one option open to Johnnie though. He decided on his course of action before going to see his commanding officer. Johnnie described how he was Arthur Ashe’s brother and how Arthur might be sent to Vietnam unless he volunteered to serve another tour of duty. After listening to Johnnie, his commander told him that he was a good Marine and that America needed good Marines to stay and finish the fight.
That was the end of the matter. Johnnie Ashe served another tour in Vietnam, and Arthur remained at West Point. He was able to continue his tennis career because of his brother’s willingness to put him first. Johnnie never told Arthur, or anyone else except his father, about his decision. In 1968, as Johnnie was serving that second tour, Arthur played in his first U.S. Open. He won but was unable to keep the prize money due to his amateur status. Half a world away, Johnnie proudly watched on television as his older brother became the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title. Johnnie continued to serve in the Marine Corps, but like many soldiers returning from Vietnam, he had to deal with the war’s unpopularity. After bravely serving his country in wartime, Johnnie experienced the full vitriol of the anti-war movement, even relating how people came up and spit on him as he was getting off the airplane when he returned home in uniform. He willingly endured the emotional turmoil that followed his service in order to protect his brother from experiencing the same thing.
After he won the U.S. Open, Arthur Ashe went on to have a phenomenal tennis career. He won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon and was later named captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. He also became an outspoken advocate for civil rights, for education, and, after contracting HIV following a blood transfusion during heart surgery, for victims of the AIDS virus. He would eventually find out what his brother had done for him, and he would often remind his daughter of her uncle’s devotion. Arthur Ashe succumbed to the ravages of AIDS and died in 1993. Twenty years later, in 2013, Johnnie would receive the Heart of Arthur Ashe Award for his selfless actions. Johnnie, however, humbly expressed his desire that his service be remembered as nothing more than “a footnote in Arthur’s life.” While it is the name of Arthur Ashe that people remember, it can never be forgotten that the love and sacrifice of Johnnie Ashe made him, in the truest sense, his brother’s keeper.