For most of his life, Edwards had been a master manipulator within black power circles. He was an operator--a fixer--with a talent for endearing himself to anyone with clout. He'd talked network executives into making the NAACP's Image Awards a nationally televised event. He'd been the California advance man on the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. He'd smoothed the way for Nelson Mandela's trip to Los Angeles shortly after the South African anti-apartheid leader's release from prison.
But now it was gone, all the compulsive deal-making juice, all the confidence. His vast network had dwindled to a handful of friends and relatives who knew about his AIDS and were organizing to help him recover. He staggered weakly from the hospital with his new regimen of drugs. Doctors told him he didn't have long.
And then, a few weeks later, came a phone call from the mother of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, who'd gotten to know Edwards years earlier during one of her frequent winter stays in Los Angeles. Parks stopped by for dinner and prayers as he was convalescing, and shortly after he was asked if he would help Parks raise the profile of her civil-rights institute in Detroit.
The story of what happened next--how Willis Edwards placed 86-year-old Rosa Parks next to Hillary Clinton at the 1999 State of the Union address, where the president praised her lavishly--was a fixer's crowning moment. Edwards created a buzz that brought Parks the most attention since 1955, when she refused to give up a bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala.
Rosa Parks went to the Oscars, had an audience with the pope and received a Congressional Gold Medal--all orchestrated with Edwards' help. And he negotiated a six-figure payment to Parks for her life story, which was televised this year.
With his spirits and health bolstered by a new sense of purpose, Edwards captured a regional seat on the NAACP's national board and became a key player in veteran state lawmaker Diane Watson's successful bid for Congress last year. He was on a roll, answering the critics who accused him of being out for himself, and telling everyone he knew that despite his fragile health he wasn't throwing in the towel, just wiping off a little sweat.
"People said I was a goner," he says. "But sickness is an attitude. I refused to buy into it."
If Edwards' life were a TV movie, the music director would be bringing up the stringed instruments about now. But they don't make TV movies about 56-year-old middlemen, not even ones with coast-to-coast connections. Yes, he's the guy to call when you need a floor pass on nominating night at the Democratic National Convention or a ticket to a sold-out Patti LaBelle concert at the Greek Theatre. But the perks Edwards dishes out often come at a price. He's also the guy who, when he spots you in a restaurant, joins your table, surveys the menu and orders the lobster.
Yet you pick up the tab because you feel that, sooner or later, it will pay to know this guy because he knows so many people and he knows how to get a job done, damn the rules.
When I tell Edwards I'm interested in profiling him, my phone starts to ring off the hook. "Willis told me to call and add my two cents to the nice, large and favorable article you're doing on him," says one recorded message.
Edwards rattles off a long list of "friends" he'd like me to call: Julian Bond, Johnnie R. Carr, Dorothy Height, C. DeLores Tucker, Sheila Frazier, Beverly Todd, Judy Pace-Flood, Freda Payne, Cicely Tyson, Denise Nicholas, Angela Bassett, Ethel Bradley, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Jesse and Jacqueline Jackson, Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Brock Peters, Julie Dash, Bill Elkins, Virna Canson, Benjamin Hooks . . .
"Willis, stop!" I say. "This is an article, not your phone book. The story is only going to be so long."
"How long, brother?"
"Well, it's not the whole magazine."
"Bruh-ther," Edwards says, exasperated, "you must learn how to negotiate."
Edwards was born in Carthage, Texas, in 1946, and grew up in Palm Springs, but his reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator started in college, at Cal State Los Angeles, where he was active in student government. Edwards was a 22-year-old sophomore when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. With money saved up from bagging groceries, he joined a large contingent of mourners that flew to Atlanta for the funeral. He was signed on to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign and was among the cheering onlookers at the Ambassador Hotel celebrating Kennedy's victory in the California primary when the senator was assassinated. The next year, he walked precincts for a city councilman named Tom Bradley, who was defeated in a bitter mayoral race by incumbent Sam Yorty. By that time, Edwards had been drafted and was on a two-week military furlough before heading out to Vietnam. He spent 14 months in Southeast Asia, was wounded slightly in a land-mine explosion and returned home to Los Angeles with a Bronze Star.
Among the Cal State L.A. students who greeted him at the airport was student body president Steve Cooley, later to become L.A. County district attorney. With Cooley's support, Edwards would be elected the first black student body president in the school's history. He also became a director of the National Student Lobby and head of its state operation. After graduation, Edwards was hired by USC to be its director of black student services. When Bradley defeated Yorty in 1973, he appointed Edwards to the city's Social Services Commission.