Willis Edwards, Famed Local Civil Rights Activist

Regina Jones remembers Willis Edwards.

At age 66 and on Friday, July 13th, Willis Edwards succumbed to cancer. Willis was a celebrated force as a civil rights and political activist, once heading the Beverly Hills-Hollywood Branch of the NAACP and shaking things up when he ran the NAACP Image Awards. Regina Jones, a long time resident of Country Club Park, worked alongside Willis on the Image Awards and shares her strong and affectionate memories of his affect on her life, the life of those he loved and the causes he cared about.

It’s hard to remember when I did not know Willis Edwards. Quite possibly my first awareness of Willis was the early 70’s when he was lobbying for the right to vote for 18-year-olds. Next he was everywhere working on Tom Bradley’s mayoral campaign. Once Mayor Bradley was in office my husband Ken and I would run into Willis at every media or entertainment event we attended, most often with Los Angeles’ first lady, Ethel Bradley holding his arm.

Since his passing everyone I speak with has a story about how Willis helped them. My next-door neighbor told me: “Willis got my daughter into student housing at USC.” My cousin shared: “He got me involved in civil rights while I was attending Cal State LA.”

When my life turned upside down-- my mother died, my business failed and my 20-year marriage came to an end-- I went underground. Every week Willis would call and leave a message on my answering machine, “I know you’re there. You don’t have to answer but I want you to know I love you.” He kept calling until I answered.

For three years Willis asked me to handle publicity for the NAACP Image Awards. When I finally agreed the media area had outgrown the lobby of the Wiltern Theatre. The new pressroom was the Atlas Restaurant next door. I told Willis that I didn’t know how to set up a live feed and he said he’d get someone to assist me. A few days later a man introduced himself as being sent by Willis, while handing me his card that read “White House Media Core”.

It came as no surprise at the 1987 Image Awards nominees press conference when Willis, president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced, “The NAACP will not nominate a black actress for this year’s Image Awards,” adding that there was a “…disconcerting lack of balance in the roles available to black women. Beyond the realm of comedic feature films, roles for black women do not seem to exist.”

The same year he spearheaded a full-time monitoring of the entertainment industry’s employment practices of black technicians and other employees.

Resigning from President of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP was a hard decision for Willis. He did so with incredible grace and integrity. His written resignation in the Image Awards program came as a shock to almost everyone as the lights dimmed, the doors closed and the taping of the 1990 show began. I often wonder if my advice that he do so was correct.

The past two years I’d often run into Willis at the Eureka Café. Most often he was coming from church service at Ward

AME or FAME. He was usually sitting at a large outside table, greeted me with a big hug and immediately began pulling chairs up for me to join he and whoever he was with.

It came as no surprise when I visited him at Westwood Veterans’ Hospital or Hospice in North Hills, that sitting with him were veteran actresses Beverly Todd and Judy Pace, NAACP president Ben Jealous, UCLA surgeon Dr. Christian Head and a room filled to capacity with Willis’ friends, family and admirers.

In Willis’ company I’ve eaten soul food in Hollywood with Rosa Parks, attended an intimate Deepak Chopra training and dinner in LaJolla, celebrated the work of Artis Lane with the backdrop a magnificent view of the Pacific Ocean from Bernard and Shirley Kinsey’s garden patio and experienced many more once in a lifetime events.

Willis leaves me with many wonderful memories. He quietly mentored me providing expertise and counsel; he was always patient and kind and he introduced and nurtured my friendship with two exceptional women, Sandra Evers Manly and Billie Green.

Be sure and read the story on Willis that appeared in the July 15, 2012, Los Angeles Times.

 

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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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