Civil Rights Champion

William Donlon Edwards, '36

January/February 2016

Reading time min

Civil Rights Champion

Photo: Edith B. Wilkie-Edwards

A champion of women's and workers' rights, an early environmentalist, and an early opponent of the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, Don Edwards was one of the most liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill. Yet when he ran for Congress in 1962 in San Jose, he couldn't secure the backing of the California Democratic Council, perhaps because his first job after law school was as an FBI agent. Edwards still won the election and went on to serve for 32 years.

William Donlon Edwards, '36, died on October 1 at his home in Carmel, Calif. He was 100.

A native of San Jose, Edwards spent two years as a special agent with the FBI before joining the Navy in 1942. He then followed his father and grandfather into the family's land title business, Abstract & Title. In 1951, he and his second wife founded the Valley Title Insurance Co.

Although he was a member of the California Young Republicans, serving as president in 1950, Edwards had switched parties by the time he was elected to the House. He voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, traveling to Mississippi and Alabama during that turbulent period under President Lyndon Johnson, with whom he later split by opposing the Vietnam War. In 1967, Edwards voted against making flag burning a federal crime and went on to oppose prayer in public schools and banning abortion. He helped unify the bipartisan majorities needed to pass the Fair Housing Amendments Act in 1988, the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, earning him the informal title of the "conscience of Congress."

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, "Whether in his service as an FBI agent or as a Navy officer during World War II, Congressman Edwards labored with dignity, led with integrity and lived with courage. As chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights for more than 20 years, he strived to ensure that all Americans enjoyed equality of opportunity."

Edwards's son, retired Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Len Edwards, recalled a time in 1964 when, as a first-year law student, he spent the summer in Mississippi helping African-Americans register to vote. "My father was a freshman congressman at the time, and he came down to visit me," he said. "We drove around the state visiting workers on the front lines of the civil rights conflict, and my father told the people in those communities that he would be their congressman. It was one of the most meaningful times of my life."

An environmental advocate, Edwards wrote a bill signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972 establishing the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the country's first urban national wildlife refuge, consisting of a 30,000-acre oasis for migratory birds in Fremont. In 1995, its name was changed to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Edwards's first two marriages ended in divorce, and his third wife, Edith, died in 2011. He is survived by his sons, Leonard, Samuel, '64, MS '72, Bruce, '68, and Thomas; four grandchildren, including Dana, '14; and five great-grandchildren.

Julie Muller Mitchell, '79, is a writer in San Francisco.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.