The passing of friend and activist, Willis Edwards, doesn’t just allow us to laud his accomplishments and mourn his life, it’s
an opportunity to evaluate the meaning of life in the construct of an
activist. Amidst his flaws and foibles, what people remember most about Willis was that he lived ameaningful life, not a life driven by fad and fashion, or trend and transitory existence.
He taught that activism is about the issue, not the activist.
set the trend and created existence where there was no reality, just
possibility. You see, Willis was a true activist and true activists
createtheir own space. True
activist play in a meaningful way in the shared realities of community,
but in the end, they change the reality by moving the ball forward. In a day when we see a lot of motion (or commotion), it’s important to understand what activists are and what activists do.
the great Jim Brown, or any NFL running back. You can run from sideline
to sideline, but if you never move the ball forward, you can’t score
and thus, make no progress. You can dribble the ball all day, but if
you can’t put the ball in the basket, all your motion was for naught.
The great John Wooden once said, “All motion is not action, and all
activity is not progress.” I use these analogies for Willis because of
just who he was and what he did. There wasn’t a lot of “hype” to his
activism. He just got it done. There wasn’t a lot of motion to his
activity, but he always was moving the ball forward. A real activist
knows the value of time and energy. They waste neither.
chases us; we can’t chase time. The real activist doesn’t worry about
time and how much time is left. They just use whatever time they have
to make the greatest impact they can. Activists rarely waste time or (e)motion. Wasted motion is wasted energy. Activists save their energy, motion and emotion (we call it passion in
activist circles) for the fight, and fight to their very last breath.
That’s was Willis Edwards. He didn’t have time for a lot of stupid
stuff but was where he needed to be, when it counted - and was mostly
there before you.
don’t just tell time, they know the time. Activists know the shifting
winds of change and they navigate them. They don’t wait for the winds
to change, and then pick the winning side. Activists face change, then they help create it. They don’t turn their backs on change, then try
to chase it down after it passes them. Activists know that change is
about timing and once the time has passed, generally so has the
opportunity for change.
I knew had better timing than Willis. Willis was creative in his
thinking. His advocacy wasn’t always guided by conventional construct,
but once he picked a side of an issue he was a factor and kept moving
the ball forward. Willis wasn’t an irrational actor; he was a very
rational thinker. What was rational to Willis often seemed radical to
everybody else, largely because it was “out of the box” thinking.
Willis was “out of the box” two decades before it became lexicon for
creative thinking in corporate America. We once called that ingenuity.
didn’t do things for attention, but he could get your attention. Willis
understood what grabbed people’s (and the press’) attention. He and the
late Melanie Lomax taught many of us activists in the 1980s that
activism is about the issue, not the activist. With the right issue,
you don’t have to call the press, the press will call you. With the
right activism, you don’t have to chase the press - the press will
chase you. And with the right advocacy, you don’t have to chase the people, the people know what’s right when they see it and they will follow what’s right.
was an activist’s activist. He would tell you that he was going to do
something when he wanted to make a point, and wait for you to disagree
with it. Then he’d show you how he did it and why he did it. The point
he was making was that activists make things happen; they
don’t wait for things to happen. Willis Edwards’ accomplishments are
too numerous to name, but two thing come to mind when I think about the
sophistication of Willis’ advocacy.
first was when the NAACP was trying to get a show nationally televised
that portrayed African Americans in a positive light. The national
office couldn’t get the show green-lighted and wanted only a “prime
time” slot. No progress was being made. Willis, as Hollywood/Beverly
Hills Branch President, went behind the national office’s efforts and
negotiated a “tape-delayed” late night slot on television. People
thought it was less than what the NAACP deserved. Willis’ philosophy
was simple; “Take what they’ll give you, then work to get what you
want.” Willis got the Image Awardson
prime time television in less than five years. Then the National Office
took it over from the branch, but they did give Willis credit for
making it happen.
You can run from sideline to sideline, but if you never move the ball forward, you can’t score and thus, make no progress.
The second was the election of former State Senator, Diane Watson, to Congress. Very few people know how
that came about. When then Congressman, Julian Dixon, died unexpectedly
in December of 2000, people were standing around talking about who
would replace him. Willis told a close circle of us, “I already know.”
And he did. Diane Watson. The problem was that Ms. Watson was halfway
around the world in Micronesia,
where she had been appointed Ambassador in Bill Clinton’s second term.
She certainly could announce and most certainly couldn’t campaign.
Three weeks later, Willis had hundreds of signs printed saying, “Watson
for Congress” and distributed them at the Kingdom Day parade. Once the
special election was announced, all her signatures had been collected
and all she had to do was show up. That was all Willis. That’s where he
earned his name, “The Fixer.” Willis made that happen. I hope Diane
Watson remembers that the rest of her life. Willis Edwards’ activism,
network and political sophistication made her a congressional
Even on his deathbed, he was doing the same thing for Los Angeles District Attorney candidate,
Jackie Lacey. Making her candidacy happen while others were standing
around trying to watch, or wait for, her failure. She didn’t fail.
Willis never stopped working. Real activist don’t. They work untiltime’s up. Until time chases ‘em down.
will always remember Willis Edwards for the crazy, funny, sometimes
bothersome and eccentric person that he was. But what I will remember
him for most, is for the activist he was.
Good night, my brothaaaa. See you on the other side.
BlackCommentator.com Columnist, Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad, is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. His Website is AnthonySamad.com. Twitter @dranthonysamad. Click here to contact Dr. Samad.