Willis Edwards, LA civil rights leader was 66

willis-edwards-sentinel.jpgWillis Edwards, part of the Robert F. Kennedy for president campaign in Los Angeles in 1968 and later a key member of the Tom Bradley adminsitration at City Hall, died today of cancer. He was the longtime president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP. "He is regarded by those who know him well as the "go-to" guy; whether it's in halls of local, state or federal government; in the bright lights of Hollywood; in the church or the temple; or as a community organizer," the Los Angeles Sentinel says on the newspaper's website. "Willis can get you what you need or where you need to go."

Willis was raised in Palm Springs and 'caught' the activist bug during his college years at Cal-State L.A. where he was elected as the first Black student body president with the help of his friend, Steve Cooley, who is now the L.A. County District Attorney. (That relationship has served Willis when, for as a community organizer and activist, he has had to reach out to the D.A.'s office while seeking a measure of justice for some in the community).

During the 1960s, Willis worked in the Robert F. Kennedy campaign for president and was at the Ambassador Hotel when the Senator was assassinated. Then he served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War and earned a Bronze Star. After returning home, he eased into the fray of politics working briefly as an intern during Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally's first term; for Mayor Tom Bradley on the Social Service Commission; and was also active in the Democratic Party.

In the late 1970s, he ran for the California State Assembly but was unsuccessful.... Then the NAACP became the center of his activity; is activist role in the organization earned him the title, in some circles, as "Mr. NAACP." He became active in the NAACP through the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch which took a gigantic leap of faith when it embarked on the journey to have the NAACP Image Awards nationally broadcast on television. Under Willis' leadership, the NAACP Image Awards was created by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch. According to Clarence Avant, " Because of Edwards' tenacity, committed activism, and leadership, the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP is responsible for more people working in Hollywood both in front of and behind the cameras today."

The Los Angeles Urban League released a statement that reads, in part, "The Los Angeles community, and literally the nation, has lost a true public servant and icon today with the passing of Willis Edwards. The Los Angeles Urban League extends heartfelt and sincere condolences to his family, loved ones and friends of which there are legions."

The History Makers website entry on Edwards notes: "After being diagnosed with AIDS, Edwards briefly retreated to private life; he came out of seclusion to help civil rights legend Rosa Parks gain public recognition by attending the 1998 Oscars, sitting next to Hillary Clinton at Bill Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union address and meeting with Pope John Paul II. After these events, Rosa Parks received the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2000, Edwards also used his influence to raise over $1 million for Parks. He later collaborated with U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson to raise money for her successful congressional campaign. Edwards also served as the California representative to the National Board of the NAACP and was a member of the NAACP’s HIV/AIDS subcommittee."

Mayor Villaraigosa's office also issued a statement:

The quest for civil rights in the United States has been championed by extraordinary men and women. It has been our honor in the City of Los Angeles that extraordinary Civil Rights Leader, Willis Edwards, lived here, worked here and called Los Angeles home. Willis Edwards was a national leader for the NAACP and a partner with the City of Los Angeles in the struggle for equality and justice for all people. I was proud to call him a personal friend for over 20 years in the struggle for civil liberties.

The legacy of Willis Edwards is that he made the impossible, possible; he fought the unjust for justice; he spoke boldly in the places of silence; and he stood tall and fearless as a leader when others cowered. We are a better city, nation and world because of the excellence of Willis Edwards.

My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.

Photo via the Los Angeles Sentinel

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