South African Airways, Arthur Ashe, Aviation and better Global Relations

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AASAAUnder the pretense of journalism, these pieces do not use the first person singular; so please pardon its use today. The below article about South African Airways’ announcement of 10 years of service to Washington Dulles stimulated memories about a long conversation about that carrier and apartheid in the early 1970s. Apologies for deviating from standard practices, but the impact of that dialogue merits repeating.

As a very junior associate, I was assigned in 1973 or so to represent a client on a case involving the request of South African Airways for US authority before the CAB. That proceeding involved a great deal of evidence about the applicant’s willingness and ability to comply with the US anti-discrimination laws.

At the same time, Washington was the site to an annual professional tennis tournament, then called The Washington Star (then a DC newspaper) Tournament. They needed volunteers and I was glad to help. My first task was to set up chairs for a reception and while I was performing this job, Arthur Ashe, the featured guest of this event, coincidentally walked by during the early preparations. He was a great hero and somehow I mustered the temerity to try to hail him. True to his open character, he paused to meet me.

I mentioned my CAB South African Airways case. He suggested that we sit and then engaged me in a thoughtful and detailed dialogue. His questions were about what exactly the carrier was doing to comply with the US standards, whether they would hire African Americans here, whether any such hires could/would be promoted, what the South African government might do to prevent such employment of blacks, what was the demeanor of the airlines’ witnesses (did they evidence any prejudice) and how did I expect the CAB to rule. It was a very pleasant conversation and Mr. Ashe’s humanity was palpable. He was strong in his views and he clearly seemingly understood the complexity of the carrier’s situation.

We were beginning to wrap up and one of the socialites heading this event came up and said “Arthur, we need you to come and meet the ‘important guests.’” He replied “I am taking about a very important issue with this very important gentleman.”

Aside from Mr. Ashe’s quick, soft humor, that evening made a lasting impression on me. Here was the #1 tennis player in the world taking time to talk to a junior associate in great length about an issue that was of considerable concern to him on intellectual, philosophical and emotional bases. While he had great passion about racism, he was equally focused on the practicalities that would impact individuals as his support of the overarching principles. He understood that the intricacies of hiring and promotion were the first steps and would build toward the bigger goals. Mr. Ashe, who flew a lot, basically explained to me how aviation was a primary vehicle for bringing the world together and for reducing racism.

The depth of his character and the quality of his insights have influenced me to today. Aviation does bridge continents and cultures in a way which should ultimately improve understanding and hopefully improve global harmony. That lesson aided me in my approach to my vocation.


ARTICLE: South African Airways Celebrates 10 Years Of Service Between Washington D.C. And Africa


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