Willis Edwards was a civil rights icon and NAACP leader.
He died July 13, 2012, of cancer. He was 66.
In 1982, Edwards was elected president of the NAACP Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch. More recently, he served as first vice president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch. Edwards is credited with by many helping to build the coalition of producers and funders that led to the first NAACP Image Awards live on national television in 1986.
NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said Edwards embodied the spirit of the organization.
“Willis attended his duties with great humility and greater passion. His accomplishments in the civil rights arena speak to a career that defies narrow definition. Willis promoted and protected the image of African Americans in the arts; he shaped and expanded the vision of the NAACP National Board of Directors; and he tore down barriers to honest conversation about HIV/AIDS in communities of color. He will be greatly missed.”
Edwards served on the National Board of the NAACP for 12 years in many different capacities. His roles included vice chair of the Image Awards, member of the NAACP Crisis Magazine Committee; member of the executive committee and the budget and finance committee; member of the national health committee and chair of the sub-committee on HIV/AIDS. He recently stepped down from the board of directors and joined the NAACP board of trustees.
“Willis Edwards was a towering figure in the NAACP, and his legacy will be remembered for generations to come,” stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous.
“As a civil rights crusader, he continued in the tradition of those who came before him but also created new avenues to pursue justice in a changing world. His ingenuity made him a strong leader and a trusted advisor to so many freedom fighters across the country.”
Diagnosed with HIV/AIDS late in life, Edwards developed a reputation as a strident spokesman for HIV/AIDS education and advocacy. He was instrumental in guiding the NAACP’s work with HIV/AIDS. He also worked with the Minority AIDS Project. His final project was the development of the NAACP manual, “The Black Church and HIV: The Social Justice Imperative,” a handbook to help congregations stem the spread of the virus.
“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,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa said in a statement.
“I was proud to call him a personal friend for over 20 years in the struggle for civil liberties.”
Edwards was born in Carthage, Texas, on Jan. 1, 1946. He was raised in Palm Springs, Calif.
He later attended California State University, Los Angeles, where he became active in politics.
Edwards began his life in activism as a staffer on the Robert F. Kennedy presidential campaign and earned a Bronze Star in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
He worked with Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks, arranging for Parks to sit with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the 1999 State of the Union Address. He served as vice president of development and planning for the Rosa Parks Museum and Library in Montgomery, Ala.
Accomplished actors Sanaa Lathan and Anthony Mackie will host the 43rd NAACP Image Awards, airing live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17 on NBC.
Celebrating the accomplishments of people of color in the fields of television, music, literature and film, and honoring individuals or groups who “promote social justice through creative endeavors,” the NAACP Image Awards are considered the “premier multicultural awards show.”
Special honorees include Cathy Hughes, founder and president of TV One and the owner of Interactive One, who will receive the prestigious Chairman’s Award.
“I am thrilled to offer Cathy Hughes the NAACP Chairman’s Award,” said Roslyn M. Brock, Chairman, NAACP Board of Directors. “This recognition is long overdue for her accomplishment as a trailblazer in the media industry. As the founder of Radio One and TV One, an advocate for small business entrepreneurship, and philanthropist, Cathy Hughes reminds us that collectively and as individuals, we can make a difference. Her presence at the Image Awards continues the NAACP’s quest to celebrate and uplift individuals who model principles of hard work, perseverance and community empowerment.”
The Vanguard Award will be presented to “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, executive producer of “Red Tails,” the feature film inspired by the true story of the Tuskegee Airmen. In addition, the Founding Members of the Black Stuntmen’s Association will receive the NAACP President’s Award.
Among those scheduled to perform are Lenny Kravitz, Jill Scott, Kirk Franklin and Ne-Yo, while the evening’s star-studded roster of presenters includes LL Cool J, Paula Patton, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Vanessa Williams, Jordin Sparks, Corey Reynolds, Judge Greg Mathis, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Holly Robinson Peete, Regina King, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, Samuel L. Jackson, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Archie Panjabi and Hill Harper.
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the “premier advocates for civil rights in their communities,” conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.
Opinions range from extreme optimism to grave dismay
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act has spurred a flurry of reactions, both locally and nationally.
The decision upholds the mandate that most Americans get health insurance or pay a penalty.
From politicians to insurance companies to organizations representing consumers and health professionals, many weighed in on a decision that will expand health coverage to more than 30 million Americans.
Congressman Bob Brady said the decision marks a victory for President Barack Obama and the American people.
“By upholding the Affordable (Care) Act they affirmed that President Obama and congressional Democrats were right, and the Act is constitutional. By upholding the individual mandate, they assured that more Americans will be covered than were before the Act was passed,” Brady said in an emailed statement.
“Moreover, insurance companies can no longer discriminate against patients with pre-existing conditions, and seniors will be able to afford the medicines they so desperately need. My only concern is that the Court removed the ability to ensure that states expand Medicaid to hard hit Americans like my constituents. We’ll have to keep working to improve on that provision.”
Bill Cruice, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, representing 5,000 registered nurses and health professionals, said the decision is a modest step in the right direction to address the nation’s health care crisis.
“It is a profound crisis of affordability for those individuals and families that have coverage on the individual market or through their employers,” said Cruice.
The phrase “health insurance” loses all meaning when accessing such insurance costs up to $5,000, $10,000 or more in out-of-pocket co-payments and deductibles. Too many families that work hard and play by the rules find themselves on the slippery slope to ruined credit and bankruptcy when simply confronted with a health misfortune.”
“While some of the ACA’s provisions would have applied a temporary Band Aid to this gaping wound, the fundamental problem in our health care is the dominance by a small handful of insurance and pharmaceutical conglomerates and profit-driven hospitals that have created a system that squanders billions of dollars on wasteful overhead and collections, and a system which prioritizes their exorbitant profits and executive compensation above all while ordinary Americans struggle to get the care they deserve,” Cruice added.
Independence Blue Cross President and CEO Daniel J. Hilferty said that while the law expands coverage to millions of Americans, it doesn’t adequately address the quality and cost of care.
“The law does not make great progress in improving patient care or lowering health care costs for our customers,” said Hilferty.
“What’s more, major provisions will raise costs for customers and disrupt coverage unless they are addressed.”
For instance, the penalty for failing to carry health insurance, beginning in 2014, will be as low as $95 per year. Hilferty said younger, healthier adults may choose to pay the penalty rather than obtaining costly insurance.
He also noted that beginning in 2014, restrictions in the law on how premiums are set would limit premiums for older adults, the larger users of health care, to no more than three times that of any other health care customer. Currently that range is about five or six to one.
“As a result, health experts say that individuals under 30 would see their premiums spike and many may choose not to buy coverage,” said Hilferty.
Councilwoman Marian Tasco, chair of City Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee, lauded the Court’s decision.
“I personally know people who don’t have health care, and they can’t get the services that they need. I’m encouraged by the decision, and I think it was the right thing to do,” said Tasco.
Tasco says the ACA would benefit Philadelphians especially, by providing additional funding for the city’s 10 health centers which largely serve the uninsured.
NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said the organization has long supported full implementation of the health care law.
“Access to quality, affordable health care is a civil and human right that should not be reserved for the wealthy or the few. The 32 million American men, women and children covered under this law can now breathe easier,” Brock said in a release.
“Many serious health issues are preventable. But far too often, patients who lack health insurance — especially patients of color — enter medical facilities late in the progression of their diagnosis. This sad reality is costing lives and costing American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary health care bills. States can now move forward in implementing health care reform with the knowledge that the Affordable Care Act is not going anywhere anytime soon.”
The National Medical Association, which represents African-American physicians, applauded the court’s decision.
“The ACA is working. More seniors can now afford their meds. Young people can stay on their parents’ health plans until age 26. Insurers no longer deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, or drop people because they get sick. We are doing a better job of coordinating care, and we now have better prospects for preventing chronic disease,” said Dr. Cedric M. Bright, NMA president.
“This is our best opportunity in a generation to overhaul our health care system. We look forward to working with the states and the administration to ensure that the reforms are fully implemented,” he concluded.
Officials from Planned Parenthood referred to the act as the “greatest advance in women’s health in a generation. The law will provide access to birth control and cancer screenings without co-pays, direct access to OB/GYN providers without referrals and an end to charging women higher premiums and denying coverage for “pre-existing conditions.”
“At Planned Parenthood, we know how important this law and this decision are for women and families, because we see the need for affordable health care every day,” said Dayle Steinberg, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania.
“Women who come into Planned Parenthood health centers often struggle to balance paying for birth control and health services with paying for textbooks, groceries, or gas for the car. The Affordable Care Act will make those decisions easier for women across the country.”
While many hailed the Supreme Court’s decision, some were disappointed in the ruling.
Republican Party of Pennsylvania Chairman Rob Gleason says the decision sets the stakes for the November election.
“The only way to save the country from Obamacare’s budget-busting government takeover of health care is to elect a new president,” Gleason said.
“Under Obamacare, President Obama’s signature legislation, health care costs continue to skyrocket, and up to 20 million Americans could lose their employer-based coverage.
Meanwhile, a panel of unelected bureaucrats now has the unprecedented authority to come between elderly patients and their doctors. Obamacare is simply wrong for America and wrong for Pennsylvania. We need market-based solutions that give patients more choice, not less. The answer to rising health care costs is not, and will never be, big government.”
John McNeil and George Zimmerman don’t know each other, but they have a lot in common.
Both men live in the South, one in Florida and the other in neighboring Georgia; states that have “stand your ground” laws on the books. Georgia also has a Castle Doctrine statute, allowing a person to defend their homes and family. According to most interpretations of such laws, the person cannot be the one who started the confrontation. It’s supposed to work for innocent people who are threatened and/or attacked and believe their life is in danger. The victim has the right to defend themselves – and to use deadly force.
At that point, the cases of Zimmerman and McNeil take vastly different paths. Zimmerman claimed he was defending himself against unarmed Trayvon Martin. A jury of 6 women acquitted him of second degree murder and manslaughter. McNeil defended himself and his family against a man, Brian Epp, who was armed with a box cutter and a knife who threatened his son at McNeil’s residence. A jury sentenced him to life in prison. The most obvious difference in the case is the race reversal of the combatants - Martin was Black and Epp was white - the mirror image of McNeil and Zimmerman.
McNeil eventually agreed to a plea bargain and a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was finally released after serving six years in prison. He’s a free man today, but the damage to his life was already done. With the help and support of family and friends, he’s trying to put his life back together and believes, particularly in the light of Zimmerman’s acquittal, that the justice system failed him.
“In 2006, I was convicted for shooting Brian Epp on my own property after Epp threatened my son with a box cutter and charged at me,” McNeil said. “He also had a knife in his pocket. Two white detectives questioned me and my son for about two hours and eventually decided that I had acted in self-defense and wasn’t guilty of committing any crime. Exactly 294 days after the incident, the district attorney for the county charged me with murder and I was arrested. When they convicted me I thought, ‘I can’t believe this! How can this be happening when all I did was defend us? We lost everything because of this injustice. My wife, who was fighting cancer, died and I lost my home because of this. Are you telling me that it’s not a crime to send an innocent man to prison? The justice system failed me. I committed no crime.”
McNeil’s trouble began when he contracted to purchase an unfinished house from Epp Elevations. On December 6, 2005, Epp went to the property to complete some work and McNeil’s son, La’Ron, called his father to report that someone was trespassing on the property. Thinking that Epp was the trespasser, he confronted him, and an argument followed, and Epp allegedly pulled out a knife. McNeil called 911 and rushed home. When McNeil was speaking to the 911 operator he was recorded as saying: “I’m at the property now and there’s the builder and I may get ready to whip his a— right now. So get the cops here now.”
According to court documents, McNeil pulled into his driveway and took out his handgun from the car’s glove compartment. He loaded it and got out of the car. He ordered Epp to leave his property several times which Epp refused to do. McNeil fired a warning shot, backing away from Epp.
“Back up, I am not playing with you,” McNeil said, according to court documents. Instead of leaving, Epp charged him, allegedly reaching for his pocket knife. McNeil fired another shot, this time hitting Epp in the head and killing him. Witnesses corroborated his version of the events, and initially police also supported his story. But almost a year later the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office charged him with murder and proceeded to prosecute him. After a jury trial, he was found guilty of felony murder and aggravated assault and sentenced to life in prison in 2006. The lengthy investigation of the events that transpired before the shooting indicated that Epp was difficult to work with and argumentative. McNeil decided on that basis to conclude the agreements with Epp to get him out of their lives. Evidence showed that he called 911 immediately after hearing about the confrontation between his son and Epp.
According to court documents, David Samson testified that he and his wife, Libby Jones, had also contracted with Epp to build them a home in April 2004. They also reported “numerous problems with Epp” and fired him in December 2004. Epp also got into a confrontation with Samson.
The NAACP took an interest in the case almost from the beginning, advocating for his release. A campaign for his freedom was started by the Wilson branch of the NAACP, which eventually went up the chain to the national level. Finally, in February 2013, McNeil agreed to a plea bargain, accepting a lesser charge of manslaughter. He was credited for time served and released.
“The court’s decision is an acknowledgement that John McNeil was convicted in error, and that error took far too long to be rectified,” stated, Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president and CEO, in an official statement. “No man – regardless of color – should have to go through such an ordeal. While the reduced charge is still too harsh, we are glad that he will be able to return home to his children.”
Roslyn M. Brock, NAACP chairman, said McNeil’s release was a bittersweet victory.
“The damage has been done,” Brock said in an official press release. “While we would have preferred John to be exonerated based on self-defense, we are thankful that he can return home to be with his two sons and start his life over. His release today is a bittersweet victory because he also returns home in sorrow following the recent death of his loving wife Anita who fought for his release until her last breath.”
McNeil said when he received the news he was being released from prison he felt he could breathe again. On Valentine’s Day, two days after his release, he buried his wife Anita who died after a long fight with cancer. He questions the reasons why he was treated unfairly and why Zimmerman was allowed to walk away from what he’d done.
“When you’re inside, behind walls, it’s a different atmosphere, a totally different world,” McNeil said. “They wanted me to take a plea to voluntary manslaughter, a charge I was acquitted of six years previously. I eventually accepted a plea and with the grace of God and the help of family and friends I’m putting my life back together. But I ask myself everyday why this was allowed to happen to me. Is this what America is? They free guilty people and imprison the innocent? I felt let down and that the justice system failed me. I ask myself: is America moving forward or are we moving backwards?”
Local and national reaction was predictable and swift to the news that NAACP President Benjamin Jealous has announced his departure at the end of the year, which preceded an announcement by NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn Brock on forming a search committee for the organization’s next leader.
Brock says the board is disappointed Jealous is leaving after five years, during which he was credited with boosting the organization’s finances and increasing stability. Still, she said staff members left energized after a meeting with Jealous on Monday.
Jealous, 40, was the organization’s youngest leader when elected at 35 in 2008.
“The NAACP is alive, and it’s well,” Brock said. “We have a strategic plan in place that will guide our work for the next 50 years.”
According to the Associated Press, Jealous said he was vacating the NAACP’s top post in order to spend time with his family and to give strong consideration to teaching a university-level class and founding a political action committee that promoted minority candidates.
While Jealous leaves the NAACP on a high note — donations have doubled to $46 million last year — the association has come under fire recently, in particular for its controversial sit-down with the Ku Klux Klan.
That move, said Black Men at Penn School of Social Work President Chad Lassiter, could very well set the NAACP back years in terms of recruitment and the mission of its founder, W.E.B. DuBois.
“I’m troubled by that [meeting]. That’s an organization historically that you are unable to sit down with and create what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the beloved community’ — there’s no creating a beloved community with the KKK. They are deeply rooted in the fabric of white supremacy and the destruction of the Black race,” Lassiter said, adding that the meeting will lead to a “harsh critique” of the organization. “I can’t have any conversations with the KKK because they haven’t changed their ideology, and they are not going to change their ideology.
“It’s disingenuous to the ancestors and all those who died before at the hands of the KKK,” Lassiter continued, noting that white supremacy never dies. “The question then becomes, what does the NAACP get out of that meeting? I can’t sit down with an historical and present-day racist organization that is not committed to uprooting white supremacy. There’s nothing I can say to them, and there’s nothing they can say to me. We can’t even have a conversation because the KKK is about the destruction of Black humanity and the destruction of Jews and the destruction of gays.”
Lassiter said he was shocked by Jealous’ sudden departure, but Jealous’ exit “puts the NAACP in the national spotlight and in the position of getting that next social change agent,” and believes that now is not the time ponder the reasoning behind Jealous exit, but rather, it is for confronting the still-raging systems of racism.
“We have to get beyond trying to figure out the cause of Jealous stepping down to recognizing that the fight against white supremacy is bigger than any one individual,” Lassiter said. “For me, it’s not a question of why he’s stepping down, but when is the organization going to get back to the criticisms its founder brought forth, such as the problems with the color lines.
“So beyond Jealous, I think it’s an opportunity for the NAACP to recommit itself to the ideology of DuBois.”
Lassiter’s comments echo local civil rights icon Dr. Walter Palmer, who also took the NAACP to task for its meeting with the KKK. Palmer believes that Jealous’ replacement should embody the “Ben Chavous” model of leadership.
“I think [Jealous] was a stand-up person, who was trying hard to advocate and be more aggressive than some of the contemporary moderates within the NAACP,” Palmer offered. “The NAACP has always been torn between hardcore advocates for social change and moderates who just want reform.
“I hope Ben stays active somewhere in the struggle, because we’re not even close to ending systemic racism.”
As far as Jealous the man is concerned, few locals knew him personally, but were well aware of the strides Jealous was making. Longtime activist Bilal Qayyaum said that although it was hard for the NAACP to shake its national image of “an old organization,” Jealous appeared to try to move the NAACP into more progressive areas.
Say Yes To Education Philadelphia Chapter Executive Director Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza said, when selecting a new director, the NAACP selection committee would do well to consider the leadership Jealous brought as a mitigating factor.
“I think they should continue what they do with jealous, bridge generations. He was more current, diversified the things they were dealing with, not just civil rights but other social justices,” Sullivan-Ongoza said. “I think they should continue in that vein if they want to regroup. And show that they know there are other issues outside of civil rights.”
WASHINGTON — The next president of the nation's largest and oldest civil rights group needs to be energetic, charismatic and willing to make a personal sacrifice, NAACP leaders say.
The group's board is beginning its search for a successor to outgoing President and CEO Benjamin Jealous, who announced this week that he will step down at the end of the year. The NAACP board is forming a search committee and plans to meet in late October to plan for the leadership change.
"My concern is identifying somebody who is energetic, familiar with this digital age and new technology, and, more importantly, who is able to go and continue to energize our thousands of chapters, or units as we call them, throughout this country," said board member Ernest Johnson of Louisiana.
Leading a group with 64 board members and a long history is a job that requires a unique set of skills.
"First, you have to realize it's not a job — it's a lifestyle, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," said board member Kamilia Landrum of Detroit. "You are representing and living for the movement. The pressure is hard. Every word you say is in the public eye. You have to be almost Baptist preacher, corporate America, or father and husband at the same time."
After suffering turbulent leadership changes and scandals in the past, the NAACP board is determined to have a smooth transition this time.
Chairman Roslyn Brock said the group plans to continue fighting for voting rights, health care, a higher minimum wage and immigration reform, among other issues.
"The NAACP is alive, and it's well," Brock said. "The work goes on, and there's so much for us to do."
Perhaps no one understands the challenges the next president will face better than Jealous himself. The job is unique in its intensity, Jealous said Monday, because "you commit to work 24/7/365 and spend half your year on an airplane and every minute working to advance the cause of civil and human rights."
In a written statement to The Associated Press, Jealous vowed the transition to a new leader would be orderly and planned.
When he was hired for the job in 2008, Jealous became the group's youngest-ever leader at the age of 35.
Under Jealous, the group worked to abolish death-penalty laws in at least four states, opposed "stop-and-frisk" police tactics and stand-your-ground laws following the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and embraced gay rights in an historic 2012 vote.
Donations have increased from $23 million in 2007 — the year before Jealous was hired — to $46 million in 2012, he said. The group also said its donors have increased from 16,000 people giving each year to more than 132,000.
"I think we need someone who appreciates that this is a long-term race that we have to be in ... that the NAACP is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic organization. We don't want to be a Black organization," Brock said.
"I think that individual would also have to be someone who resonates with young people, young activists across the country," Brock said.
Former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said the group's biggest challenge going forward will be finding "someone — some man, some woman — who can carry the banner as Ben Jealous did and carry us onward and further onward to greater and greater victories," Bond said.
"We want somebody who would be as vibrant and as energetic as he or she possibly can," Bond said.
Several board members agreed that the job takes a toll.
Jerry Mondeshire, the head of the Philadelphia NAACP and a national board member, said friction between Jealous and Brock may have led to the former's early departure.
"I think the combination of the strain on his family, and the ongoing friction, he decided to exit earlier," said Mondeshire, adding that he was a critic of Jealous at first but that he was won over by Jealous' fundraising and modernization of the NAACP.
Brock said she is not aware of any tension that drove Jealous out.
"As with any organization, you're never going to have, with a 64-member board, everyone in agreement on any one issue at any given time," she said.
Brock said the board devised a strategic plan with Jealous to guide the group for years to come.
"An organization that is 104 years old, it can't be really about one person doing the job," she said. "It has to really lie within the hearts and minds of those who believe in the mission."
Jealous has been praised for boosting the organization's finances and helping to stabilize it. In the year before Jealous arrived, the NAACP cut its national staff by a third because of what a spokesman described at the time as several years of falling fundraising revenues. Also that year, former NAACP President Bruce Gordon abruptly resigned after clashes with the group's board.
The 40-year-old Jealous says he wants to spend more time with his family, teach at a university and start a political action committee focused on promoting Black and Latino candidates, along with progressives of all races. -- (AP)