How tennis legend Arthur Ashe became one of the most vocal HIV/AIDS activists

Editor’s Note: The new CNN Film “Citizen Ashe” airs Sunday, June 26, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

CNN  — 

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.”