Shangri-La was Ron Edwards’ favorite description of Minneapolis/St. Paul. It was his backhanded way of highlighting the hypocrisy of the Twin Cities, which saw itself as being much more progressive than other cities, but which was in fact in many ways worse.
“People don’t know how much he loved and respected his community,” said Edwards’ son Brian Lee Jones. “I really want the community to know how much he loved them.”
Jones described his father as a good dad who was a hockey and football fan and took him to games at the Metropolitan stadium to watch the Vikings, even in the cold. He also revealed that his father was an avid golfer.
“My father told me that he was not just an activist for the Black community. He would always tell me, ‘I fight for everybody when I see an injustice done.’
“He wasn’t Ron, the activist; he was Ron, my daddy. He was an amazing father,” said his son. He said he didn’t look forward to seeing his father when he had misbehaved, “when I knew I was in trouble. He never spanked me, but he would talk to me, and his words were just so powerful. Oh, my God.”
Ron Edwards passed January 21 at age 81. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri and moved to the Twin Cities with his father, who worked on the railroad. During the turbulent 1960s, Edwards was swept up in the activist spirit of the times, becoming one himself. He remained an enduring presence of consequence in Minneapolis for just over a half-century.
He left the Twin Cities to weigh in on the educational front, historically a key battleground for social progress. Edwards found employment as a community organizer in Syracuse, N.Y., where as a part of his work he started a school on the history of minority groups.
Edwards returned to Minneapolis in 1966, where he would also take up educational reform, confronting the Minneapolis Board of Education about unequal discipline and disparate academic outcomes for Black students. This was just one of the many issues he took on in his quest for racial and social justice.
He was gainfully employed for many years by Northern States Power before retiring to focus entirely on community activism. Edwards leaves a legacy of sitting on many organization’s boards, most notably heading the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, the Minneapolis NAACP, the Minneapolis Urban League and the Police Community Relations Council.
As Minneapolis Urban League president, he was instrumental in desegregating the Minneapolis Fire Department. He was appointed by a federal magistrate to supervise a civilian structure that would oversee the process of integrating that department over the course of 30 years starting in the 1970s.
In the 1980s he filed lawsuits against the City of Minneapolis, continually calling it to account for the abuses of its police department, particularly police brutality, as well as discriminatory hiring practices that had kept people of color out of these departments. He spearheaded the call for a Justice Department investigation into the 1984 police shooting of a young Black man, Sal Saran Scott.
Scott was killed by police after a run-in with the Minneapolis police decoy unit. Edwards had been arrested for allegedly interfering with the work of the unit downtown when he warned people that some of those pretending to be drunk and stumbling downtown were actually cops. He recently sat on a committee working with the U.S. Justice Department that brought a consent decree against the Minneapolis Police Department in an effort to hold them more accountable.
Many are familiar with Edwards’ radio show that he shared with Don Allen on Blog Talk Radio, but he was also known for his time at KMOJ radio. Edwards worked with the station in the 1990s and put it on everyone’s radar. His Friday early evening show captured a large audience as he evaluated and analyzed the latest local social and racial injustices. Twin Cities media would sometimes camp outside the tiny station to get Ron’s latest scoop, revelation, or an earful on the latest injustice in Shangri-La.
Edwards was best known as gadfly and muckraker, using his radio show and weekly columns in the MSR to call out anyone and everyone who had run afoul of the Black community. He seemed to know more than most about the intrigue going on at city hall. He was particularly critical of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, often calling it the Johannesburg Times, a reference to that newspaper’s racist history during the Apartheid era.
Edwards was such an adamant force that a few years ago former Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau barred him from attending her closed-door meetings with community leaders on how to improve community relations with the police department.
“He was fully professional at all times, and truly a Renaissance man,” said writer and collaborator Peter Jessen. “His heart for civil rights and minorities knew no bounds. As Denny Green often said, he was the last man standing, never taking his eyes off on the prize.”
Jessen helped Edwards write his first book, “The Minneapolis Story: Through my Eyes.” Edwards also published a second book, “A Seat for Everyone: The Freedom Guide that Explores a Vision for America.”
The activist column “Through My Eyes” was an MSR fixture for nearly 15 years, the brainchild of senior editor Jerry Freeman, who thought Edwards’ insights would bring enlightenment to the paper’s readers. “Ron also informed our news-gathering efforts,” said Freeman. “He’d sometimes call day or night with detailed information, often more than I could comprehend, about things he thought the paper should look into.”
As Tracey Williams-Dillard, publisher of the MSR, put it, “Ron didn’t have a problem taking anybody on, and not everyone liked what he had to say, but he said it anyhow.”
Funeral services are scheduled for Saturday, February 1, at 11 am at Shiloh Temple, 1201 West Broadway in North Minneapolis. Visitation will take place from 9-11 am.