By Jerry Jacobsen
“Willis Edwards: Passing the Torch of His Legacy”
January 1, 1946 – July 13, 2012
There was such an abundance of leaders and influencers from local and national organizations at the Willis Franklin Earl Edwards July 21st Celebration of Life – from the NAACP to the African Methodist Episcopal Church to US, State and local City elected officials – the ceremony could very well have been the inauguration of a powerful leader. And in truth, it was.
Willis Edwards, pioneer in civil rights and social justice, passed away on July 13th, 2012, and during his memorial at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, there was a recurring theme from the 40-plus speakers who stood at the podium: Mr. Willis’ Legacy. Mr. Ben Jealous, President and CEO of the National NAACP, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, retired Congresswoman Diane Watson and Bishop T. Larry Kirkland of the 5th Episcopal District of the AME Church, all provided stirring narratives that recalled Willis’ years of fighting for equality and justice.
Singers Thelma Houston, Freda Payne and Willis’ own nephew, Suamana “Swoop” Brown delivered highly emotional vocals in his dedication, and Cicely Tyson offered words of reflection in a powerful reading of “The Dash,” Linda Ellis’ famous poem that asks readers to consider life’s priorities during the time (or “dash”) spent between the dates on one’s tombstone.
Throughout these expressions, with both tears and uproarious laughter recounting Willis direct nature and penchant for enlisting folks into his war on injustice, it was clear that the torch that he carried for so many causes (Rosa Parks’ National Recognition, the NAACP Image Awards and Voting Rights for 18-year-olds, to name a few), was being passed.
Mitsy Wilson, founder of leadership firm ForAfrica and former head of Diversity Development for the Fox Group knew Willis for many years in his fight to ensure representation of people of color in Hollywood [Disclaimer: author worked with Wilson in Fox’s Diversity Development as Executive Director].
“Willis was a gentle giant who provided a face to the faceless and was a supporter of the ‘underdog’ for justice and equality.” In her work with Willis and the NAACP to ensure such representation in entertainment, she recalls some of her more challenging days. “Whenever I spoke with Willis, I walked away with his words that ‘You don’t have the right to give up or quit.’ I still hear those words to this day,” Mitsy recalls.
Her organization ForAfrica has established the “Willis Edwards Community Service Award” which will include a $2,500 scholarship for an individual whose primary goal is toward community advancement, and says that this is part of her way of ensuring Willis’ legacy lives on.
Ron Hasson, President of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Chapter of the NAACP, a title which Willis also held, worked for many years alongside Willis on many initiatives. He ties much of Willis’ influence and success to his dedicated support of young people, including his work as the first African American Student Body President at Cal State LA, to his work as Director of Black Student Services at USC. “Many of the folks who are successful today are where they are at because Willis helped them to understand that they were ‘somebody.’ He moved them in the right direction, fighting to ensure the administration supported them fully.”
During his tenure with the NAACP, Edwards was instrumental in getting the organization to take an active stand in HIV awareness and prevention. His subsequent work with the NAACP’s ACT-SO youth achievement program was so near to his heart, he asked in lieu of flowers that contributions be sent to support the initiative. “Willis’ brother took it a step further, and set up a foundation in his name to support ACT-SO through the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch.” Hasson said.
Willis Edwards, survived by his sister Brenda Edwards Pine, brother Frank Edwards and sister-in-law Mae Edwards and a “host of nieces, nephews, cousins and countless friends all over the world” leaves behind him a blazing trail of social justice. “I think everyone who Willis touched has a responsibility to continue in his footsteps,” added Mitsy Wilson. Huge footsteps, indeed.
Jerry Jacobsen is a media and entertainment executive who has headed strategic operations within corporate communications, business development and diversemarket initiatives. At various roles within the Fox Group and Times Mirror/LosAngeles Times, Mr. Jacobsen has worked with some of the most popular and successful brands around the globe, including FOX Broadcasting (AMERICAN IDOL, HOUSE, 24, GLEE), 20th Century Fox Film and Television (AVATAR, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, MODERN FAMILY) HarperCollins Publishing, New York Post, Newsday and Dow Jones, among others.