One Prize Left For Althea Gibson: Presidential Medal Of Freedom
The matriarch of African-American tennis deserves much more than being the subject of Black History Month anecdotes.
After all, black history is being written on an ongoing basis on the WTA Tour these days, as African-American women have multiplied across the tennis landscape more conspicuously than Shonda Rhimes on Thursday night network television. Every brush fire needs a spark, though, and Althea Gibson was the tinder for progress that is blazing across the women's tennis circuit more than half a century later.
Now is the time to ignite a conversation around Gibson's glaring omission from the list of those who have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Since 1963, the Presidential Medal of Freedom has honored exceptional individuals who have made significant contributions to the security of America or its cultural interests. The idea of sports as a petri dish for progressive society has been exhibited before in the careers of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron and Jesse Owens. Unfortunately, there is a vast disparity in the ratio of sportsmen to sportswomen who have been given equal acknowledgment for their role in reshaping the world.
As President John F. Kennedy said, "A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers."
This sentiment should apply to sportswomen as well.
Of the 24 athletes or coaches to have had the country's highest civilian accolade bestowed upon them, only WTA founder Billie Jean King and Tennessee Vols coach Pat Summitt have been women. Gibson, too, is deserving.
New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne Jr. thinks so, too. Last year, he sponsored a bill aimed at awarding Gibson the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal, but it failed to pass through committee. Hard to figure out why.
Gibson traversed the course of an intolerant, sexist and segregated time with aplomb so that former player Zina Garrison, USTA president Katrina Adams, the Williams sisters and even Ashe could flourish decades later in the shade she provided.
Instead of whispering salutes, a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom would be a better-late-than-never gesture to commemorate the first mainstream black female athlete of the 20th century. In her prime, Gibson was a 5-foot-11 athletic marvel who rose from paddle tennis champ on the streets of Harlem to dominating the tennis ranks.
Not only did Gibson scale racial barriers, but she also transcended class by conquering a segregated tour rooted in the country-club culture.
When the black press asked why she was reticent to use her prominence to actively assist in the civil rights movement, Gibson rebutted, "I want my success to speak for itself as an advertisement for my race."
Decades later, there's no disputing that the sublime stroke of Gibson's racket won over competitors such as Alice Marble, who penned the American Lawn Tennis magazine piece in 1950 that was the impetus for Gibson's Wimbledon invitation, as well as the hearts and minds of the public. But just as important, she won tournaments.
At the 1956 French Championships, she broke through as the first African-American Grand Slam tournament champion, a dozen years before Ashe reached the parallel pinnacle on the men's side.
In 1957, she became the first Wimbledon women's champion to have the Venus Rosewater Dish presented to her by Queen Elizabeth II.
A year later, Gibson returned to trounce the Wimbledon field for a second time. But the paucity of earning potential in amateur women's tennis before the founding of a pro tour drove her to ride out on top when she was 31.
Despite her reluctance to become a mouthpiece of the civil rights movement, Gibson displayed humility after her retirement from tennis when she said, "I hope that I have accomplished just one thing: that I have been a credit to tennis and my country."
The five-time Grand Slam tennis champion went on to flex her golf muscles by integrating the LPGA Tour in 1963.
Last November, President Barack Obama paid tribute to Charlie Sifford, who integrated the PGA Tour three years before Gibson took a sledgehammer to the monochromatic racial composition of her second major sport.
Gibson's second-place finish in a three-way playoff at the 1970 Buick Open remains the closest an African-American woman has come to winning an LPGA event.
Residue from Gibson's career can also be observed on the LPGA Tour, which recently welcomed Cheyenne Woods and Sadena Parks, who are only its fifth and sixth full-time African-American members.
At a ceremony to honor Ashe at Northeastern University in 1989, the retired tennis icon began his remarks by graciously praising Gibson for lighting the path.
"I would not have had the chance to do what I have been able to do if Althea Gibson had not blazed the way for me," Ashe said, four years before President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Freedom to his widow.
Gibson passed away in 2003 from respiratory failure and isn't present to speak for herself. That's why it's our duty to stand up and push for her legacy.
The time is past overdue for the curators of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to grant Gibson access into one of the few elite clubs she was unable to infiltrate during her lifetime.