Editor’s Note: The new CNN Film “Citizen Ashe” airs Sunday, June 26, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Arthur Ashe may have been most known for his tennis success, but it was his activism that set him apart off the court.
When not winning major tennis championships and breaking barriers in one of the most lily-white sports at the time, Ashe was a vocal advocate for civil rights, even getting arrested in 1985 for protesting apartheid outside the South African embassy.
Documentary “Citizen Ashe” premieres Sunday, June 26, at 9 p.m. ET on CNN. It explores Ashe’s life as both a tennis player and an activist, but his civil rights activism is only a part of his legacy. The other? His HIV/AIDS advocacy.
Ashe became one of the most famous HIV-positive figures
It’s believed Ashe contracted HIV from a blood transfusion for an open-heart surgery, eventually learning of his condition in 1988.
At the time, HIV/AIDS was heavily stigmatized. And Ashe, having retired from tennis eight years earlier, chose to keep his diagnosis a secret.
That is, until 1992 – when USA Today contacted him saying it was about to break the story. So, on April 8, at a press conference with his wife, Ashe came forward.
The reactions were largely positive, said Eric Allen Hall, an associate professor at Northern Illinois University and author of “Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era.” Ashe was a beloved figure at the time and many supported him. He had contacts around the world, endorsed products, sat on boards of corporations – he had even written a book, Hall said. President George H.W. Bush, a friend of the tennis icon, gave him a call following the reveal.
“He was a squeaky clean figure, so it was hard to look at him and think ‘Oh, he deserves it because X, Y, and Z,’ like many folks would say when they would find out that somebody gay had AIDS, for instance, or a drug user had AIDS,” Hall said. “He was the ideal person to destigmatize the disease.”
In pictures: Tennis great Arthur Ashe
There were some, though, who wished Ashe had come forward sooner, Hall said, arguing that if he had disclosed his condition he could have done more to help the cause – just as he did with apartheid and civil rights.
Ashe’s disclosure came just after Magic Johnson announced his own HIV diagnosis in 1991. HIV/AIDS already disproportionately affected Black people, and having two major Black global figures speak publicly about the disease was huge, said Ravi Perry, chair of the department of political science at Howard University.
“It was important to have two Black major international global figures come out and not only have to deal with the horror of being infected with the virus, but also use their platform to continue to change the narrative around the virus,” Perry said.
Ashe used his fame to advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness
Changing the narrative around HIV/AIDS is something Ashe became dedicated to after going public with his disease.
Ashe was the type of person to dive into issues and deeply educate himself on topics, so when he spoke on them, he could do so with authority, Hall said. He did so with South Africa – once, for example, forcing the tennis world to confront apartheid by putting the country in a Catch-22 situation for denying Ashe a visa.
His approach to HIV/AIDS was no different. Ashe dove into sometimes complicated academic medical literature, becoming an expert on AIDS, AIDS treatment and the health care system, Hall said.
One of his biggest pushes at the governmental level was health care reform. He was open about the difficulties of procuring early AIDS drugs, like AZT, and how expensive and inaccessible those treatments were. He was determined to make it easier for people with AIDS, or anything else, to get the coverage they needed with as little red tape as possible.
“Many, many athletes were activists, but I don’t think there were any as well read and as well informed as he was,” Hall said.
He went on to found the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which Hall said pledged 50% of its funding to countries outside the US battling the disease.
Even as the disease progressed, Ashe continued to make appearances on radio and television, attend tennis tournaments and host tennis clinics, Hall said. In 1992, he spoke at the World Health Organization’s World AIDS Day, where he advocated for further funding for AIDS research.
Through it all, he was never afraid to talk about the disease. Some events events paired tennis instruction with messaging about AIDS prevention, Hall said, discussing safe sex and other paths of healthy living.
All this was done at a time when the US was a very socially conservative country, Perry said. Ashe continuing to make appearances as someone who was HIV positive was still a shocker for many people – especially since he continued his activism around other issues as well, like the treatment of Haitian refugees, for which he was arrested outside the White House in 1992.
And the fact that both Ashe and Johnson, two of the most high profile people with AIDS, were also sports stars certainly helped, Perry said.
“After both of them came out with their diagnosis, it became a federal agenda item in the presidential campaign in 1992; health care became a significant issue that helped propel Clinton’s first time,” he said. “And so certainly I would say that the impact of Arthur Ashe made up much of what we saw in terms of policy and investment in policy reform around HIV.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 100,000 people died from AIDS in the US between 1981 and 1990. The federal government’s response to the disease at the time is now largely considered insufficient.
The people most at risk didn’t have a global audience the way Ashe had. They couldn’t demand media attention like he could, even though many were dying right there in New York, blocks away from him.
“I think he felt an obligation to continue,” Perry said. “He’d been a pioneer in race and social relations for decades already.”
And there’s still ignorance about the disease among medical professionals, Perry said.
Perry, who is HIV positive, lived in Starkville, Mississippi for three years, and said he had to drive two hours for better care – a privilege he said not everyone in the region can afford.
“We need to continue to do the work in urban and rural spaces to eliminate the disease, but certainly, at the very least, hopefully we can commit to eliminating the disparity that exists between racial groups,” he said.
Doing so would require listening to Black figures and activists still living today, Perry said – those who now stand on the shoulders of Ashe.