Civil rights pioneer Willis Edwards dies at 66

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By Bryan Monroe, CNN

(CNN) – Willis Edwards, longtime president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood branch of the NAACP and key to launching the NAACP Image Awards on national television, died Friday in Mission Hills, California, according to a spokeswoman for Providence Holy Cross Medical Center.

Edwards, born in Texas and raised in Palm Springs, California, was 66.

The cause of the civil rights pioneer’s death was not immediately available.

Edwards became active in politics while attending California State University, Los Angeles, according to TheHistoryMakers.com, which preserves the life stories of thousands of African-Americans.

Edwards served on the Social Services Commission after Tom Bradley was elected Los Angeles mayor, according to Lauren Tobin, a spokeswoman for the Edwards family.

Four years after an unsuccessful run for the California General Assembly, Edwards was elected president of the Beverly Hills/Hollywood Branch of the NAACP in 1982, according to the website. More recently, he served as the chapter’s first vice president.

Edwards, who was vice president of development and planning for the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute, also led the campaign to get Rosa Parks on a U.S. postage stamp in 2006.

“I remember having dinner with Willis Edwards in Philadelphia at the NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists) Convention in 2011. He was never ashamed of his HIV-positive status and proudly proclaimed, ‘I fought AIDS to a standstill,’” said CNN assignment editor Greg Morrison.

“He was a vibrant man who engaged in conversation with everybody he met,” Morrison added. “His passion was making sure the African-American community addressed the issue of AIDS education without flinching.”

Former U.S. Rep. Diane Watson knew Edwards for more than 40 years, dating to when he was student body president in college. She said he was known around town as “The Fixer.”

“Willis could get you into anything, any party, any private event. He just knew everybody,” said Watson, a former U.S. ambassador to Micronesia. “Willis could talk his way into Fort Knox with two guns blazing.”