It is with deep sadness that I write this statement, saluting and saying goodbye to my friend Willis Edwards. Willis was best known as the founding visionary behind the NAACP Image Awards, and a longtime national board member for the NAACP itself. He was also one of the key individuals that pushed through federal recognition for Ms. Rosa Parks. In short, Willis’ life was a life of giving, public service, and true servant leadership.
We did not always agree on how to get something done, or who to get it done with, but we always agreed on what needed to get done, and when (usually, now).
Willis was a man in a hurry, a hurry to, and for justice. But most of all, Willis Edwards was the real thing. The real deal, as they say.
If you met him, he would not tell you what you wanted to hear. He would tell you the truth, whether that was what you wanted to hear or not. As a result, I always knew I could trust Willis. Always. I could always go to him for counsel, which I often did over the years, on anything associated with civil rights, social justice, or the NAACP. On occasion, he would work things out for me, as only he knew how to do. After it was done, he was never the one looking for credit. He only wanted the ‘right thing’ done.
My favorite memory of Willis and I, and I have many, was really our last one. Thankfully, our mutual friend Ms. Jackie Dupont Walker told me that Willis was in the hospital, and encouraged me to go out to see him. I really did not have the time, as it was April 23rd, 2012, or literally on the eve of our HOPE Opportunity Bus Tour in Los Angeles, during the observation of the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King riots. I went to see Willis anyway, and we spent two incredible hours together. He looked so good, and sounded so strong, that it appeared he would simply walk out the door of that facility the next week.
Such was not to be the case, but I will always remember his grace, his care, and his final words. They were not about him. As was the case for Willis — he was concerned about the state of our nation, of our people, and of our community. He wanted me to promise that I would do what I could to keep folks honest, and hold them accountable. I said I would, and I will.
I owe Willis Edwards this. We all owe him, so much more.
Goodbye Willis Edwards. You have truly been ‘promoted.’ Gone on, to a better place. A place, for saints.
Onward and with HOPE,
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass) the only African-American bestselling business author in the U.S., and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S. He is also a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum. Mr. Bryant serves on the board of directors of Ares Commercial Real Estate Corporation, an NYSE Euronext publicly traded company, and a division of $54 billion Ares Capital.
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