By Leah AsmelashCNN
Editor’s Note: The New CNN Movie “Burger Ashe” airs Sunday, June 26 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
(CNN) — Arthur Ashe was perhaps best known for his tennis success, but it was his activism that set him apart from the field.
When Ashe failed to win major tennis championships and broke barriers in one of the most lily-white sports of the time, Ashe was a vocal advocate for civil rights, even being arrested in 1985 for protesting against apartheid. outside the South African embassy.
Documentary “Burger 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 part of his legacy. The other? His advocacy for HIV/AIDS.
Ashe became one of the most famous HIV positive figures
Ashe is believed to have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion for open heart surgery, eventually learning of his condition in 1988.
At that time, HIV/AIDS was tough stigmatized† And Ashe, who had retired from tennis eight years earlier, chose to keep his diagnosis a secret.
That is, until 1992 – when USA Today reached out to him and said it was about to break the story. So, on April 8, during a press conference with his wife, Ashe came forward.
The response has been mostly 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 much-loved figure at the time and many supported him. He had contacts all over the world, approved products, sat on company boards — he’d even written a book, Hall said. President George HW Bush, a friend of the tennis icon, called him following the unveiling.
“He was a tiny clean figure, so it was hard to look at him and think ‘Oh, he deserves it because X, Y, and Z’, as many people would say if they found out a homosexual had AIDS, for example, whether a drug user had AIDS,” Hall said. “He was the ideal person to destigmatize the disease.”
However, there were some who wished Ashe had come forward sooner, Hall said, arguing that had he disclosed his condition, he could have done more to help the cause — just as he did with apartheid and civil rights.
Ashe’s revelation came just after Magic Johnson announced his own HIV diagnosis in 1991. HIV/AIDS was already disproportionately affecting black people, and it was huge to see two major black world figures talking about the disease in public, said Ravi Perry, chair of the political science department. at Howard University.
“It was important that two major black international figures from the world come out and not only deal with the horror of being infected with the virus, but also use their platform to continue to change the story around the virus,” Perry said.
Ashe used his fame to advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness
Changing the HIV/AIDS narrative is something Ashe devoted himself to after making his illness public.
Ashe was the type of person to delve into problems and educate himself deeply on topics, so when he talked about it, he could do so with authority, Hall said. He did that with South Africa – once, for example, he forced the tennis world to confront apartheid by putting the country in a Catch-22 situation for refusing a visa to Ashe.
His approach to HIV/AIDS was no different. Ashe delved into sometimes complicated academic medical literature and became an expert on AIDS, AIDS treatment and the health care system, Hall said.
One of his greatest efforts at the government level was health care reform. He was open about the difficulties in getting early AIDS drugs, such as AZT, and how expensive and inaccessible those treatments were. He was determined to make it easier for people with AIDS or something else to get the coverage they needed with as little bureaucracy as possible.
“Many, many athletes were activists, but I don’t think any were as well read and informed as he was,” Hall said.
He went on to found the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which, according to Hall, pledged 50% of its funding to countries outside the US fighting the disease.
Even as the disease progressed, Ashe continued to appear on radio and television, attending tennis tournaments and organizing tennis clinics, Hall said. In 1992, he spoke at the World Health Organization’s World AIDS Day, advocating for further funding for AIDS research.
Because of all this, he was never afraid to talk about the disease. Some events combined tennis instruction with messages about AIDS prevention, Hall said, as he talked about safe sex and other ways to live healthy lives.
All of this happened at a time when the US was a very socially conservative country, Perry said. Ashe’s continued performance as an HIV-positive continued to come as a shock to many – especially as he continued his activism around other issues, such as the treatment of Haitian refugees, for which he arrested outside the White House in 1992†
And the fact that both Ashe and Johnson, two of the most prominent people with AIDS, were also sports stars certainly helped, Perry said.
“After they both came out with their diagnosis, it became a federal agenda item in the 1992 presidential campaign; health care became a major problem that propelled Clinton’s first time,” he said. “And so I’d definitely say that Arthur Ashe’s impact was a lot of what we saw in terms of policy and investment in policy reforms around HIV.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that more than 100,000 people died of AIDS in the US between 1981 and 1990. The federal government response to the disease at the time is now largely regarded as insufficient.
The people most at risk didn’t have a global audience like Ashe did. They couldn’t demand media attention like him, even though many died there in New York, a stone’s throw from him.
“I think he felt an obligation to keep going,” Perry said. “He was a pioneer of race and social relations for decades.”
And there is 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 says not everyone in the area can afford.
“We need to keep doing the work in urban and rural areas to eradicate the disease, but hopefully we can at least work to eliminate disparities between racial groups,” he said.
To do that, you’d have to listen to black figures and activists who are still alive, Perry said — the ones who now stand on Ashe’s shoulders.
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