Congressman Don Edwards: An American Original – posted 10/17/2015
Former Congressman Don Edwards of California passed away on October 1. The event did not get much public attention although it should have. Don Edwards was a principled and effective advocate for social justice, equal rights, and environmental protection. That is so rare in a Congressman, especially now. In our era, the most forceful congressmen don’t even believe in government. They want to shut down the government for stupid reasons.
You almost never attach the term “heroic” to a Congressman but for Don Edwards it fit. He served in Congress from 1963 to 1995. During that time, he was a fierce protector of civil rights and liberties. He also played a key role in shepherding every major civil rights bill that passed through Congress.
Even more interesting than his political accomplishments was his personal and political evolution. He switched parties in the 60’s. He went from being a Republican to becoming a progressive Democrat. In his earlier political life, he had been, admittedly, a liberal Republican, a breed that is now as extinct as the dodo bird. I think it is interesting when a political person evolves. From my experience, that type of change is unusual. It seems to me that many more people stick to the politics of their birth family.
Born in San Jose into a Republican family, he went to Stanford University and then Stanford Law School. He was a top golfer. In 1934, he reached the finals of the California State Amateur Championship. Many years later, in 1950, he teamed up with professional golfer Marty Furgol to win the Pro-Am title at the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am held at Pebble Beach.
After law school, Edwards spent two years as a special agent with the FBI. During World War II, he served as an officer in the Navy, working in naval intelligence. He then followed his grandfather and father into the family land title business.
In the 1950’s, Edwards joined the California Young Republicans and he was elected president of that organization. By the time he was first elected to the House in 1962, he had changed parties and become a Democrat. Even then, he was disillusioned with how conservative the Republican Party had become.
Early in his legislative career, he played a critical role in convincing Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When he retired from Congress in 1995 he remarked about that time:
“It’s hard for some of you to remember…When I arrived [in Congress], black people couldn’t vote in large parts of the country, and if they did, they’d get hanged.”
About that time, Edwards also said:
“When I came here, the 11 states of the Old South practiced apartheid. There was a House Un-American Activities Committee. And the FBI was out of control threatening individual liberties.”
Edwards visited Mississippi and Alabama in 1964 where his son Leonard was working to register African-American voters. That experience had a significant effect on him. Edwards wrote Dr. King a letter in 1965 saying that his trip to Selma, Alabama showed him “the absolute necessity for immediate passage ” of the Civil Rights Act. He told King “we stand ready to support your efforts here in Washington”.
Edwards became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. From that powerful position, he was the floor manager for many bills affecting minority rights and women’s rights. He successfully fought to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1982. At that time the Reagan Administration wanted to end the process by which states with past histories of discrimination had to have new election law “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department before they became effective. This is the same law the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder.
At the time, back in 1982, Edwards was quoted, saying:
“If you can’t vote, you are not a real citizen.”
Later in the 1980’s, he was arrested while protesting South African apartheid. The struggle against racism always remained close to Edwards’ heart.
Edwards had turned against the war in Vietnam and he had been the first House member to back Senator Eugene J. McCarthy’s anti-war campaign for President. That stand was controversial. It resulted in his only close re-election battle of his sixteen terms in Congress but he still won.
There are many fights in which Don Edwards engaged that deserve mention.
- he pushed the Equal Rights Amendment through the House in 1972 only to see it fall three states short of approval
- he was an effective member of the Judiciary Committee during the Watergate-era and he voted in favor of all articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon
- he played a key role in eliminating the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1975
- in 1986, he prominently opposed the nomination of William Rehnquist to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, citing Rehnquist’s past dismal record on the fight against racism. To quote Edwards about Rehnquist: “He is a relic of a shameful era in our history when the law was perverted into an instrument for segregating society. He should not be confirmed to our highest judicial office.”
- he played a big role in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as well as the Fair Housing Amendments Act
- he helped push through the Civil Rights Act of 1991 which expanded legal recourse for job discrimination
Edwards was an ardent environmentalist. He authored the bill that established the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. That was the first urban national wildlife refuge in the United States. The bill preserved a wide swath of South Bay wetlands for fish, wildlife and public recreation. The refuge covered 30,000 acres and it provides a resting spot for migratory birds. There are also other wildlife preserves on the Central Coast of California that bear Edwards’ name.
Representative Zoe Lofgren, a former Edwards’ staffer and his successor in Congress, tells a story that captures Edwards’ reputation for standing up for the underdog. Congress used to routinely fire all the mostly African-American food service workers on Capitol Hill as a budget fix. The workers would appeal to Edwards for help even though he was not on the congressional committee that handled that issue. The workers knew who their friend would be.
While he remained a savvy legislator, Edwards was very respected by all for his gentlemanliness and his civility. He had strong relationships with legislators from both parties. When he retired, the late Republican Congressman Henry Hyde had this to say:
“He is relentlessly liberal but that’s not a vice. The battle for the fullest expression of civil liberties is losing a general, not a foot soldier.”
Even though Edwards had been an FBI agent, he had a contentious relationship with the former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. As one of his first acts in Congress, he had forced through an audit of the FBI that challenged the agency’s bookkeeping. That had not endeared him to Hoover. The Washington Post reported a funny story about the Hoover-Edwards relationship. After several years in Congress, Edwards publicly considered stepping down and not running again. That caught Hoover’s attention and he wrote a memo about Edwards’ impending departure from Congress. On the memo was a handwritten comment: “Good riddance.” it was signed with the FBI Director’s initial “H”. Somehow that document made its way to Edwards. Edwards kept a framed copy of that Hoover document in his office.
When Edwards retired at age 80, he was quoted on what he wanted at that point.
“We haven’t been able to have a dog for the last 25 years.”
Don Edwards was an American original. He served California and the nation with integrity and distinction. He set a very high standard as a legislator.