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.
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.”