Willis Edwards, longtime president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the NAACP, died July 13.

He was one of the key forces behind bringing national television exposure for the NAACP Image Awards and gaining a postage stamp image and a Congressional Gold Medal for civil rights icon Rosa Parks. He was 66. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Born in Texas and raised in Palm Springs, Calif., Edwards was a civil rights pioneer, who
became politically active at California State University, Los Angeles, according to TheHistoryMakers.com. He was the first Black elected student body president at Cal State L.A., according to the Los Angeles Times.

Later, he joined the campaign team for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and was by Kennedy’s side when he was assassinated in 1968. A Vietnam War veteran who was awarded a Bronze Star, then-Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley appointed Edwards to the city’s Social Service Commission in 1973. Then, after an unsuccessful bid for the California General Assembly, Edwards largely faded from politics.

Four years later, Edwards was elected president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP in 1982. And, it was in that position that he forged his reputation as a fierce and effective activist devoted to improving the depiction of African Americans in the entertainment industry. In 1986 he assembled a coalition of producers and money sources that launched the first televised NAACP Image Awards.

“Willis understood more than most, the nexus among race, culture and the arts,” said NAACP Board of Trustees Chairman Eugene Duffy in a statement. “He comprehended that how we are portrayed on the stage and screen, what is written by and about the people of the African Diaspora, defines not only how we see the world but how the world sees us. His legacy with the NAACP, particularly the Image Awards, will continue to serve as a source of inspiration for generations to come. The curtain has closed for Willis in this life but I certain he is center stage in heaven.”

In addition to his activities in the NAACP, Edwards was also closely involved with the Detroit-based Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute “almost since its inception” in 1987, said co-founder Elaine Steele.

Edwards led the fight to get Rosa Parks on a U.S. postage stamp in 2006 and the campaign that won her a Congressional Gold Medal.
“He was very dear to me, and the Institute and Mrs. Parks,” said Steele, who visited Edwards during his illness.

His success, she added, came from his commitment to a cause and his persistence.

“He was just a person who loved to be involved,” she said, then added, “He had a way of making things happen that would have been impossible for anyone else. he would go the extra mile, working from can-see to can’t-see, from sunrise to sundown to get things done.”

Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised Edwards for his courage and commitment to attaining equality and justice for all.

“I was proud to call him a personal friend for over 20 years in the struggle for civil liberties,” Villaraigosa said in a statement. “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.”

Diagnosed with HIV/AIDS later in his life, Edwards became an outspoken advocate in the efforts to end the pandemic. He was involved with the Minority AIDS Project and helped shape the NAACP’s HIV/AIDS policy. His last project, according to the organization, was the development of the NAACP manual “The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative,” a handbook to help congregations stop the spread of the virus.

Stated NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock: accomplishments in the civil rights arena speak to a career that defies narrow definition. Willis promoted and protected the image of African Americans in the arts; he shaped and expanded the vision of the NAACP National Board of Directors; and he tore down barriers to honest conversation about HIV/AIDS in communities of color. He will be greatly missed.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO