THE RICHMOND City Council will hold a public hearing next Monday to discuss whether to erect a statue of native son Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue.
What should have been a no-brainer has turned into a major quarrel, with charges and counter-charges of racism, living in the past, trashing the past, etc., etc.
The "problem" is that Monument Avenue statuary is supposed to be limited to "generals and other important heroes," and many Virginians don't believe an athlete, especially a black one, is a hero.
Here is how the Richmond Times-Dispatch put it in an editorial: "Notable athletes -- particularly those whose accomplishments transcend the playing fields -- deserve commemoration. But rather than elevating Ashe, the statue and its location could diminish his stature. Will he suffer in comparison with the other statues on Monument? Any sports figure probably would."
The "other statues" are of Robert E. Lee, J. E. B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson and the like. Now it's true that Ashe was just a lowly lieutenant in the U.S. Army, a rank far below those achieved by Lee, Stuart and Jackson. On the other hand he never violated his oath to uphold the Constitution and -- Just Kidding! What a cheap shot! Uncalled for! The best argument in favor of putting an Ashe statue on Monument Avenue is to heal -- and remind one and all of the similarities of the heroism of a Lee and an Ashe.
Here is how Paul Woody put it in the T-D: "Ashe deserves to be just down the road from Robert E. Lee, looking the Civil War leader right in the eye. Ashe and Lee have much in common. They were men of uncommon dignity and character. Leadership was thrust upon them, and, even though at times they seemed uncomfortable with the role, they assumed it and excelled in it."
Ashe was a "general" of sorts. Though he was best known for being the first great black male tennis player and the winner of the U.S and Australian Opens and Wimbledon, he was also non-playing captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team for five years.
He was a playing member of the team for 15 years before that. He did a lot to improve America's image in a world concerned about the nation's lingering racist traditions.
And he was like Robert E. Lee in two important ways.
(1) In his delightful new history of tennis, "Sporting Gentlemen" (The Free Press; $30), E. Digby Baltzell describes Ashe as someone who "by natural instinct, parental training and education was a Virginia gentleman in the very best moral and mannerly meaning of that term. . . . In the increasingly uncivil quarter-century between his victory at Forest Hills, in 1968, and his tragic death, in 1993, the moral life of Arthur Ashe has constantly renewed my faith in the staying power of the gentlemanly ideal."
And (2), as Baltzell amply demonstrates, gentlemanly tennis, like Robert E. Lee's Confederacy, was very much a Lost Cause.