At Atria, we admire sports icon and champion of equality Billie Jean King not only for her spectacular achievements in sports, but for how her indomitable spirit inspires us to create a more inclusive world. Her beliefs and life experience make her the perfect spokesperson for our Next Chapter series that explores how older adults are redefining aging.
Now a New York Times bestseller, Billie Jean’s new autobiography, All In, is a spirited account of her life’s journey filled with insights and advice on leadership, business, activism, sports, politics, marriage equality, parenting, sexuality and love. Here are a few highlights that show how living honestly and openly can have a transformative effect on relationships and happiness.
Meeting Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, tells a story of resilience, grace and resolve – one that Billie Jean holds dear. So, when she received a call one morning with an offer to meet the world leader, she jumped at the opportunity and hopped on a plane to Johannesburg.
Mandela embodied qualities that Billie Jean cherishes most: Kindness. Generosity. Freedom. Equality. Forgiveness. She also shares his belief in transcendence and redemption.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Mandela wrote. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can learn to love.”
At their meeting, Mandela talked about his imprisonment at Robben Island. Despite the difficult living conditions, he sought out the humanity in his captors. Through persistence and humility, he managed to break down barriers and convinced the guards to make the prisoners’ lives less onerous.
It was a wonderful experience, and Billie Jean still marvels at how Mandela “reimagined the country in ways people had doubted were possible.” She goes on to say, “For me, nothing has compared to meeting the man himself and walking in some of the same places he tread.”
Making Black lives matter in the 1970’s
Motivated by her childhood admiration for Althea Gibson, Billie Jean worked with her former husband, Larry King, to make tennis an equal opportunity sport. But despite the efforts of the Kings and others, it was still an uphill climb for the players of color on the Virginia Slims Tour in the early ‘70s.
“Our crowds in Philadelphia were filled with American Tennis Association members (a Black-run organization) who gave them a warm reception,” recounts King. In Houston, the Black staff told the players they’d never seen Black women play professional tennis before, and it made them proud. But a stop in Florida was a different story.
To the players’ dismay, they saw Confederate flags flying from every other flagpole around the grandstand at Miami’s Jockey Club. Ann Koger, one of the tour players, climbed the pole that evening and removed one of the flags. After informing Tour Director Peachy Kellmeyer that the remaining flags were an insult to the players and every other American, the flags were all taken down.
Tournament housing also became an issue. Available rooms suddenly disappeared when Black players showed up at the tournament desk. Billie Jean approached the desk and, in a calm but direct manner, said, “You know, there must be some mistake. My friends here told me that you have no housing for them. And if that is true, I can assure you that I will not play in this tournament. And neither will anyone else. So, what are you going to do about that?”
Moments later, rooms were found at a nice hotel.
Billie Jean King’s legacy of equality
In All In, Billie Jean writes, “Sports consistently reminds us how talent comes from all places, and how much we can achieve together, especially when we can accept each other without prejudice and recognize that our differences make this a richer world.”
Billie Jean is creating a legacy that will endure and shape future generations. Working with others, she has helped create the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a non-profit undertaking that promotes equality and inclusion and advocates for equal pay.
She says that we must continue asking ourselves whenever we consider any undertaking, When this is done, will we have helped make this world a better place? She feels we should define success as both doing well and doing good.
Ed Woolard, Billie Jean’s dear friend and business mentor, helped her refine three guidelines to help us do well – and do good – by becoming happier, more successful human beings.
- Be a problem solver and an innovator, and realize that once you identify a problem, it’s important to be a part of the solution.
- Never stop learning, and never stop learning how to learn.
- Relationships are everything.
For more insights into these and other stories, read All In, available here. And for inspiring stories about how older adults are breaking personal barriers, visit our Next Chapter website where you can watch Billie Jean interview Atria residents about how they are redefining aging.