Don Edwards, civil rights champion

Don Edwards, shown in 1990 while still in Congress, died last week at age 100.
Don Edwards, shown in 1990 while still in Congress, died last week at age 100. Associated Press file

Former Rep. Don Edwards, who died at 100 last week after a remarkable life, had a lasting impact on our lives.

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, Edwards fought for civil rights and women’s rights, and against the war in Vietnam and government overreach in domestic surveillance.

The San Jose Mercury News, his hometown paper, summed up Edwards in its obituary like this: “He stood up for women, for workers, for the environment. He joined the Freedom Riders in the 1960s, opposed the Vietnam war in the ’70s, and was arrested while protesting South African apartheid in the ’80s. A national wildlife refuge bears his name.”

Edwards’ life spanned and in many ways helped shape the American Century. As a young man, Edwards went to Stanford, played on the golf team, became an FBI agent, joined the Navy, served in World War II and, as the New York Times noted, won the Bing Crosby Clambake at Pebble Beach as an amateur in 1950.

Edwards, who started out as a Republican, became one of Congress’ most liberal Democrats. Elected from San Jose in 1962, his earliest major votes were in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He became a champion of civil rights in an era that needed more than champions; it needed people who could work across party lines.

Edwards teamed with Republican Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. of New York and others to shepherd civil rights bills through the House. Edwards said his most important accomplishment was the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act. “If you can’t vote, you are not a real citizen,” he said. The Supreme Court since has restricted the Voting Rights Act.

Edwards told the Mercury News when he left the House in 1994: “It is the irresistible impulse of government to assume more power. My role is to say ‘no.’”

The House of Representatives that Edwards left in 1994 is long gone. But Edwards understood that simply saying no isn’t enough, that you must persuade and lead with help from colleagues on both sides of the aisle. This Congress should take that lesson to heart.