Ron Edwards, a fiery activist and one of the most prominent civil rights advocates in Minnesota over the past 60 years, has died. He was 81.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Edwards came to Minneapolis as a child in the 1940s with his father, who worked for the Northern Pacific Railway. At a young age, he gained a reputation as an advocate for civil rights in the 1960s, and continued as the face of local activism until his death.
He was past president of the Minneapolis Urban League and a key figure in the effort to desegregate the all-white Minneapolis Fire Department in the 1970s. He was an unrelenting critic of police brutality but also a friend to numerous black officers, finding kinship with them in their fight to win acceptance in the department.
In later years, he became a journalist-advocate, writing sharply critical columns in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, conducting a weekly radio show co-hosted by Don Allen, and a weekly cable TV program, where he spoke on various topics in his trademark nasal drawl.
"He knew about everything and everyone, relating to African-American history and Minnesota going back to the 1940s," Allen said Tuesday.
Tracey Williams-Dillard, CEO and publisher of the Spokesman-Recorder, said Edwards was outspoken.
"He didn't have a problem taking anybody on, and not everyone liked what he had to say, but he said it anyhow," Williams-Dillard said.
He was full of inside information and frequently broke stories on his show before the mainstream media got wind of it. He occasionally called reporters with tips, but was also a tough critic of the Star Tribune. Over the years, he believed the paper at times was insensitive to blacks.
"He was a mentor, he was an educator for our movement," said Al Flowers, a Minneapolis civil rights activist. "He was our voice."
Edwards was found dead in his apartment. A friend, Lisa Crockett, called New Hope police for a welfare check on Tuesday, after he stopped answering his cellphone. Officers entered the apartment and found he had died.
"This is the worst thing to happen to our community," said Crockett, who added that Edwards had mentored her on local issues for 20 years.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, whose family has deep roots in the city, said he knew of Edwards before joining the police force in the late 1980s, but that his admiration for the civil rights activist grew as he watched Edwards take on the powers-that-be.
"I am just absolutely saddened and shocked to get the news," he said, adding that he had spoken with Edwards two weeks ago.
Edwards, he said, was a consistent, fearless advocate of inclusion within the city's fire and police departments. "He was certainly the voice for so many African-Americans who felt disenfranchised by both the social and political structures," Arradondo said.
Longtime civil rights leader Josie Johnson said she first met Edwards when she was an aide to Mayor Art Naftalin. Edwards was a youthful activist at the time.
"His voice will be missed and his activism will be missed," she said.
"I hope the community will acknowledge what he has done for us for all these years."
In one of his early confrontations with authority, he got a job as a community organizer in Syracuse, N.Y., where he started a school on the history of minority groups. For that, he was charged with teaching black nationalism.
He was acquitted, but he lost his job and returned to Minneapolis in 1966 "bitter as a son of a gun," he said in a 1968 interview with the Minneapolis Tribune.
Few escaped his scrutiny. In the 1970s, a federal judge appointed him to head a civilian committee that oversaw the desegregation of the city's Fire Department over the next three decades.
He sued the Police Department over its minority hiring practices in the 1980s and later that decade led a charge demanding a Justice Department investigation into the controversial police shooting of a young black man, Sal Scott.
"He had a nose for injustice," said Steven Belton, president of the Urban League Twin Cities. "Had a broad, broad network of friends and supporters, and he used it to good effect."
Edwards was ahead of his time, advocating for police accountability and diversity in hiring and other issues that confront the nation today, said Spike Moss, a Minneapolis civil rights advocate.
"We might've been early, but God let us live long enough for this to be all over the news, for us to see that we were right to stand up," Moss said.
Staff writer Paul Walsh and librarian John Wareham contributed to this report.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Libor Jany • 612-673-4064