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Openly Gay NAACP Civil Rights Pioneer Willis Edwards dies

Openly Gay NAACP Civil Rights Pioneer Willis Edwards dies

by Karen Ocamb on July 13, 2012

NAACP Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch President Willis Edwards, Black AIDS Institute CEO Phill Wilson and then-LA City AIDS Coordinator Stephen Simon at NAACP convention lunch on the issue of AIDS July 23, 2011 in Los Angeles (Photo by Karen Ocamb)

CNN reports that Willis Edwards, the openly gay, openly HIV-positive longtime president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the NAACP, died Friday in Mission Hills, according to a spokesperson for Providence Holy Cross Medical Center.  He was 66. The cause of the death was not immediately released.

Edwards, who was born in Texas and raised in Palm Springs, was instrumental in launching the NAACP Image Awards on national television. He contributed that expertise to panels such as “Knocking Down the Door: Black LGBT Images in Media” – a standing room only panel at the Screen Actors Guild in March 2009, sponsored by GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition with the panel co-sponsored by SAG’s LGBT Actors Committee and the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP. (GLAAD has a video posted here.)

Willis was honored by the Black AIDS Institute and the Magic Johnson Foundation on World AIDS Day in 2010, along with former President Bill Clinton, actor and HIV/AIDS activist Blair Underwood, among others.

Last year, Willis was a respected and ubiquitous presence during the NAACP’s national convention in Los Angeles July 22-24. During the Saturday, July 23, lunch that featured a very strong keynote by Dr. Gail Wyatt, UCLA AIDS Institute, Willis took the podium and was received warmly with much familiarity and appreciative applause.  During the NAACP’s first-ever Town Hall on LGBT issues, Willis was acknowledged by NAACP panelists and civil rights icon Julian Bond – which prompted Willis to speak his mind with the authority of years from his perch in the audience.

On Friday night, July 13, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa released this statement about Willis’ death:

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.

CNN reports:

Edwards became active in politics while attending California State University, Los Angeles, according to TheHistoryMakers.com, which preserves the life stories of thousands of African-Americans.

Edwards served on the Social Services Commission after Tom Bradley was elected Los Angeles mayor, according to Lauren Tobin, a spokeswoman for the Edwards family.

Four years after an unsuccessful run for the California General Assembly, Edwards was elected president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP in 1982, according to the website. More recently, he served as the chapter’s first vice president.

Edwards, who was vice president of development and planning for the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute, also led the campaign to get Rosa Parks on a U.S. postage stamp in 2006.

“I remember having dinner with Willis Edwards in Philadelphia at the NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists) Convention in 2011. He was never ashamed of his HIV-positive status and proudly proclaimed, ‘I fought AIDS to a standstill,’” said CNN assignment editor Greg Morrison.

“He was a vibrant man who engaged in conversation with everybody he met,” Morrison added. “His passion was making sure the African-American community addressed the issue of AIDS education without flinching.”

Former U.S. Rep. Diane Watson knew Edwards for more than 40 years, dating to when he was student body president in college. She said he was known around town as “The Fixer.”

“Willis could get you into anything, any party, any private event. He just knew everybody,” said Watson, a former U.S. ambassador to Micronesia. “Willis could talk his way into Fort Knox with two guns blazing.”

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Public Invited to Celebrations of Life for Willis Edwards Friday Night, Saturday Afternoon
July 20, 2012 at 12:00 PM

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Herndon Davis July 14, 2012 at 9:57 AM

OMG this is such a HUGE loss. Although I didn’t know him very well, I do vividly remember and admired his tenacious, progressive and leadership driven qualities. I met him back in 2005 at a Black Gay Men’s Leadership retreat in Palm Springs and had long conversations with him about his life, family, raising children and his work with the NAACP. I bumped into him again in 2006 in Washington, DC where we both attended the NAACP’s annual convention. Our paths again crossed in 2008 during the annual NAACP Image Awards festivities and in 2009 while he was working on the Knocking Down the Door: Black LGBT Images in Media panel.

One thing that was very true about Willis was that he was open about his ENTIRE life 24-7. He wasn’t a Civil Rights Advocate to one audience then an HIV or LGBT advocate to another audience. He showed up completely as himself everywhere he went. By speaking up and out he shed a light where many would normally hide. And yet he was still highly respected within the NAACP. In fact he was active up to just a few weeks ago fighting the good fight in the case of a black UCLA physician Dr. Christian Head who has leveled horrid racist treatment accusations against UCLA’s Medical School. I signed the petition on Change.org and noticed Willis was listed as the contact. In fact I received an update email from Willis dated May 15, 2012 concerning the case. He passed away on July 13, 2012 almost 2 months from the date of that email

In honor of Willis Edward’s memory I am asking that everyone please sign what was probably Willis’ last Change.org petition and perhaps his last active case with the NAACP before his death.


Herndon Davis
Multimedia Journalist


Aaron Riviers July 14, 2012 at 11:50 AM

I have known Willis since I moved to Palm Springs in 1961 we attended.Palm Springs High School together his family and my family were friends.He always worked for the betterment of mankind he always wanted to be someone my father called him professor. He was definitely el be missed he left us with a legacy my prayers are with his family.


Tracy Green July 17, 2012 at 10:52 AM

Submitted by: Tracy Green /NAACP Beverly Hills/Hollywood Chapter
(after I sent a condolescence card to Bill Cosby. He personally sent this to me as CBS after his Son Ennis passed)
Author: Anonymous
Not – How did he die? But – How did he live?
Not – What did he gain? But – What did he give?

These are the things that measure the worth
Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.

Not – What was his station? But – had he a heart?
And – How did he play his God-given part?

Was he ever ready with a word of good cheer?
To bring back a smile, to banish a tear?

Not – What was his church? Not – What was his creed?
But – Had he befriended those really in need?

Not – What did the sketch in the newspaper say?
But – How many were sorry when he passed away?

These are the things that measure the worth
Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.
“A man’s strength is measured by his heart”

It takes much to be a true man…
It’s not just simply the gender;
Some think it’s about the looks
But I know the truth…

It’s all about loving;
That spellbinding, radiation of pure, unconditional love…

You know a real man by the way he acts;
Every unselfish thing he does…
Knowing he will always be there to help
Inside, a real man is filled with love

A real man cries…
And he does;
His heart has known pain
He’s also known love which has left molded impressions deep within

A real man opens himself up to life experiences
Opening your heart is never wrong
And he has taught that not only to myself, but to others as well…

Within his rippled embrace; his strong, caring embrace
Solitude can be found
If only you take the time to know his depth and breadth

Very few know the true measure of a man;
Very few know the true measure of THIS man…
Every day,I feel it and his love makes me strong

May God grant him peace and serenity as he journeys on the sacred travels of his life
May he know only love; feel love…always
Until the stars fall from the skies
Until Mercury crumbles
Until the end of his days…
the measure of a man
Is not in anumber of scores
Or the record of loves in a lifetime
The number of times he hung up without speaking
The measure of a man
Isn’t in his educational attainment
Or the number of patches on a letterman jacket
It isn’t the people who claim him
Because he was popular
It isn’t the courts he served on
Or his leadership abilities
It isn’t his competitors glories
It isn’t his spiritual gifts
It isn’t his decisiveness

The measure of a man
Is in his love’s eyes
It is the committment to love he shows daily
It is his determination to not abandon her
the measure of a man
Is in his character
His values and determination
It’s in his consistency
The measure of a man
isn’t in how often he grunts
Or in the strength of his arms
But in the defense of his heart
Becasue a real man isn’t afraid to try
He takes the chance because it’s you he already loves
A real man would rather die for love
then live one day without it
A real man loves with his soul
Because a real man is God’s Obedient Child
and that makes all the difference
Written by Lillian B. Rose

“The Sculptor”
I took a piece of plastic clay
And idly fashioned it one day,
And as my fingers pressed it, still
It bent and yielded to my will.
I came again, when days were passed,
The bit of clay was hard at last,
The form I gave it, still it bore,
But I could change that form no more.
Then I took a piece of living clay
And gently formed it, day by day
And molded with my power and art,
A young child’s soft and yielding heart.
I came again when years were gone,
It was a man I looked upon.
He still that early impress bore,
And I could change it, nevermore.


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