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Billie Jean King Had The Epiphany At 12: Tennis Is A Platform For Social Change

A woman in a white tennis outfit lunges and swings her racket as the crowd looks on in the background.
American tennis player Billie Jean King during the 1972 Wimbledon Championships in London, UK, July 1972.
(Evening Standard/Hulton Archive
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Tennis legend Billie Jean King’s new autobiography, All In, starts with a memory that stretches back to her elementary school in Long Beach: “I’d sit in my classroom… staring at the big pull-down map of the world, and daydream about the places I’d go.”

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LISTEN: Billie Jean King discusses her childhood, career, activism, and new book

It was tennis that would provide her with the means not just to travel, but also to become a major force for social change. The book details her childhood in Long Beach, her groundbreaking career in tennis (including her win over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes), and her work fighting for gender and racial equality, as well as LGBTQ rights.

She writes: “Two of the unchanging, overarching lessons of my life are that people’s existence is rarely improved by sitting still in the face of injustice, and that the human spirit should never be underestimated.”

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In a recent interview with our newsroom's public affairs show AirTalk, which airs on 89.3 KPCC, King told host Larry Mantle that she remembered seeing on TV that Black students in the South could not go to school with whites. Upset, she asked her dad why. "He said, 'Well, because of their color. They're black.' I'm like, I just didn't get that. And I never did, I never have and I never will."

By the age of 12, she had discovered her love for tennis and was practicing every chance she could get — often for free at public parks and recreation centers in Long Beach. She noticed something while playing at the Los Angeles Tennis Club one day.

"And I started realizing that everybody wore white shoes, white socks, white clothes, you know, played with white balls then, and everybody who played was white. And I asked myself, where is everybody else?"

King said she had an epiphany that day at the tennis club. She recognized that as a girl, she would face challenges, but she also knew that she was white, and that her "sisters of color would have it much worse." She said:

"I didn't know the word platform in those days. But that's really what I was visualizing — that this is [an] amazing opportunity to fight for equality the rest of my life. I remember telling myself at 12, 'That's it.' And then if you fast forward, though, I didn't think unless I was No. 1 that anyone would listen. And if you read my history, you'll start to see by about 1966-67, when I became No. 1, I started speaking out."
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Use the audio player at the top of this to hear the whole conversation or visit the AirTalk page.

Megan Nguyen contributed to this story.

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