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Willis Edwards, 66, remembered as an uncommon activist


Memorial services were set for Friday and Saturday for civil rights activist Willis Edwards, who died of cancer Friday at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills at age 66.

The Los Angeles Urban League has arranged “An Evening of Reflections” to be held from 6-8 p.m. Friday at Angelus Funeral Home, 3875 Crenshaw Blvd., and “A Celebration of Life” funeral service will be held at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at First A.M.E. Church, 2270 S. Harvard Blvd.

Edwards was a longtime activist and powerbroker for Black leaders in and outside politics on local, state and national stages. He became famous for his campaign to raise the profile of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, securing the elderly Parks a seat next to then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton during President Bill Clinton’s 1999 State of the Union speech.

Edwards worked on numerous political campaigns, including both Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 and the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s in 1988.

He was active in Los Angeles politics, serving on the Civil Service Commission in the 1970s under Mayor Tom Bradley, and coordinating former South African President Nelson Mandela’s visit to Los Angeles in 1992.

He became president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood Branch of the NAACP, where he gained notoriety for persuading then-NBC president Brandon Tartikoff to televise the NAACP Image Awards.

Edwards, who was HIV positive, became known in recent years for his effort to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention and LGBT issues. He spoke about the image of LGBT Blacks in the media during a 2009 Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation conference and was honored on World AIDS Day in 2010 by the Black AIDS Institute and the Magic Johnson Foundation.

Gregory Franks, president and CEO of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Foundation, called Edwards an “incredible human being” and noted on the foundation’s website that he “was the first African American student body president at California State University, Los Angeles; was responsible for bringing the Image Awards to television, and was the architect of the Rosa Parks funeral and memorial services in Montgomery, Ala., Washington D.C. and Detroit, Mich.”

Former Congresswoman Diane Watson, for whom Edwards worked during her election campaigns, told the Los Angeles Times: “Willis was really a creative genius. He could gain access to the White House or to any chamber he wanted to. He could get doors open that others couldn’t.”
Los Angeles Urban League President Blair Taylor described Edwards as “the kind of man that comes along maybe once in 10 million. He was always willing to help those in need without any expectations, and always willing to find humor, even in the midst of life’s greatest challenges.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called Edwards a friend for more than 20 years and an extraordinary civil rights leader.

“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,” Villaraigosa said. “We are a better city, nation and world because of the excellence of Willis Edwards.”

Said Congresswoman Karen Bass:
“It was absolutely heartbreaking to learn about the death of my dear friend Willis Edwards. Although he was sick for some time, losing a vibrant soul and faithful supporter of so many people in our community is never easy.

“It is my hope that Willis knew how much we all loved him and considered him to be a legend in Black history. His dedication to civil rights as well as California and national politics will never be forgotten. He worked tirelessly to ensure positive images of African Americans were displayed on television when he persuaded NBC to televise the NAACP Image Awards show, and was right by civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ side prior to her death.”

Urban Issues Forum managing director Anthony Asadullah Samad referred to Edwards as “one of the most serious and committed activists I ever met.”

Politics, race and pop culture critic Jasmyne Cannick noted that while Edwards was “not” openly gay, “he was a strong advocate for HIV and AIDS issues.”

In lieu of flowers, mourners were asked to send donations to the Beverly Hills-Hollywood NAACP, 1680 N. Vine St., suite 700, Hollywood, CA 90028.