Civil rights champion Ron Edwards dead at 81

Civil rights activist Ron Edwards stands along a stretch of Plymouth Ave.
Longtime civil rights activist Ron Edwards stands along a stretch of Plymouth Avenue on July 10, 2017. Edwards died earlier this week.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

When she heard that a newspaper had reported the death of Ron Edwards, Ora Hokes said at first she wasn’t sure it was about the Ron Edwards she knew. Hokes said that skepticism was fitting, given Edwards’ constant criticism of the mainstream media.

“We’re not trusting the newspapers,” Hokes chuckled.

Though Edwards, who died earlier this week, often took the media to task for its coverage — or lack thereof — of African Americans, journalists often reached out to him.

For example, reporters called Edwards for his perspective after a police officer shot and killed Jamar Clark in November 2015. The shooting of Clark, an African American man, sparked weeks of demonstrations outside the 4th Precinct police station on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis.

Decades before the unrest flared along the historic avenue, 600 National Guard troops were called in response to African Americans pushing back against oppression.

Edwards was there.

"It is not a comfortable feeling when you see a Jeep driving up and down the street with at least three military personnel and a 30-caliber machine gun," he said in a 2015 interview with MPR News.

Edwards described daily injustices suffered by African Americans at the hands of law enforcement and other people in power.

"People were just sick and tired of it, because back in the '50s there were all kinds of problems," Edwards said. "Beatings were kind of the order of the day."

Edwards never forgot those times and spoke out whenever he saw history repeating itself, said Hokes, who first met him in the late 1970s. She recently co-founded an advocacy group with Edwards and other longtime civil rights leaders like Spike Moss. The group most recently held a press conference two weeks ago. Hokes said that’s the last time she saw her colleague.

“We’re all born to die. And we know that we are going to go,” she said. “But it’s still unbelievable when you see someone and then they’re gone.”

Hokes said Edwards, who was born in Missouri, often told her about his upbringing and his early experiences with Jim Crow segregation. His father was a waiter who served white travelers on passenger rail cars.

“If you think of the deep south, Jim Crow, you think of the Pullman porters and being in service, [and] how that would impact him,” said Hokes.

Segregation was not confined to the South. Hokes said Edwards and other African Americans who came “up north” discovered much of the same kind of treatment they experienced in southern states.

Edwards didn’t sit idly by when he witnessed or experienced racial inequality. He did something.

Throughout his lifetime Edwards sat on dozens of civic boards, commissions and panels. Edwards is believed to be the longest seated chair of the Minneapolis Urban League. He’s also served as the head of the Minneapolis NAACP.

Don Allen has co-hosted a radio program with Edwards for the last 10 years. And he’s known Edwards ever since he was a kid.

“My uncle, the late Rev. Walter L. Battle gave him his first haircut when he arrived in the Twin Cities,” said Allen. “He’s been a close friend of my aunts and uncles for years. And so he’s always someone who’s always been around.”

Edwards turned 81 earlier this month. And Allen said Edwards’ mind was as sharp as any 20-year-old’s.

“He could recall stuff from the ‘50s, like it happened yesterday, in detail,” he said.

Edwards often used his platform on the radio show to hold people in power and in the community to account. And sometimes, said Allen, that rubbed people the wrong way.

Allen said Edwards did a lot for the community that never received much attention or recognition. The activist often used his connections to help people who needed resources or help with legal matters. But Edwards’ name does not appear on the list of black Minnesotans who’ve made outstanding contributions to the community, Allen said.

“I said, Mr. Edwards ‘Why don’t they give you an award?’And his response is, ‘They don’t reward the truth.’”

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