Willis Edwards Succumbs to Cancer
“He fought the good fight. He finished the course. He kept the faith. At 4:40p.m. on Friday, the 13th of July 2012, my “bestest friend in the whole wide world,” Willis Franklin Earl Edwards succumbed to cancer and departed this existence for his heavenly residence.
He left on the wings of angels and arrived at the Pearly Gates in God’s own time.
Final arrangements are pending and will be announced over the next few days. Thank you for the outpouring of love shown to Willis while he was here with us.”
Willis Edwards at the NAACP Awards
Willis with Don Cornelius
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; Willis can get you what you need or where you need to go.
Willis Edwards (affectionately called ‘Willis’) is a fixture in Los Angeles and he cast a very unassuming shadow – if one does not know who he is and what he has done for his community – it would not show by his down-to-earth appearance. But he is a giant via his deeds and actions on behalf of others. He definitely does not seek fame or fortune; he has never held an elected office (though he ran once and has worked for, and on behalf of many elected officials), to state that Willis is one of a kind is not an understatement; he definitely is.
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.
Willis lives a simple almost Spartan lifestyle – no show of elegance or luxury – just doing what he does from wherever he is … nothing fancy … but always helping others, be they well-known and famous or unknown and anonymous. And though an extremely private person, his work on social and political issues is very public and well known.
In the late 1970s, he ran for the California State Assembly but was unsuccessful. However, at one point during his campaign, when President Jimmy Carter came to town, Willis was at the airport to greet him. He was there too, when then U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young came to town.
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.”
He has served on the National Board of the NAACP for 12 years; as vice chair of the Image Awards; member of the Board of Directors for the NAACP Crisis Magazine; member of the Executive Committee and the Budget and Finance Committee for the National Board. Willis is also a member of the National Health Committee of the NAACP and serves as chair of the sub-committee on HIV/AIDS. After having been diagnosed with AIDS and becoming a prominent voice on the issue of HIV/AIDS education, he has aggressively encouraged the NAACP to take on this issue as an important civil rights initiative since so many African Americans were suffering from health disparities associated with HIV/AIDS diagnosis, medical resources, and mental health counseling. Willis has also worked with the Minority AIDS Project.
In addition he has worked for and with Nelson Mandela, and Mrs. Rosa Parks, and has helped elect many African American politicians. As a volunteer and a community activist/organizer, Willis has helped many people attain their dreams and in the latter capacity, whenever there is a news story of hope, he is there.
Willis is Vice President of Development and Planning for the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute in Detroit, and is a board member of: the Rosa Parks Museum and Library in Montgomery Alabama. He also wrote and co-produced the critically acclaimed film, The Rosa Parks Story, which starred Angela Bassett.
From his days working for Mayor Bradley, Willis has continued working to help preserve the Bradley legacy. He works with the Tom and Ethel Bradley Foundation for Intentional Civility and the NAACP.
Willis is not a paid employee for anything he does or has done. He is simply an active volunteer that gets things done for the people in the community. He lives out the saying that ‘service is the price you pay for the space you occupy.’
About Willis, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, “Ever since I’ve known Willis (whom he met in college), he has been committed to uplifting not only his community, but all communities, ensuring we all have a chance to achieve our dreams.”
Council President Herb Wesson said: “Willis Edwards is a courageous fighter, whether in Vietnam, where he was awarded a Bronze Star, or fighting against racism and discrimination as a leader of the local and national NAACP. We have fought many battles together. I am proud to call him my friend, and to stand with him in the battle he is fighting now.”
In his own words, Willis has said, “I always wanted to make a difference in my community. I think that people should do what they can with what they have.”
And this he has done.