A Minnesota civil rights icon was laid to rest Saturday in the heart of the community he so staunchly fought for, and by the friends and family he gave everything to.
Ron Edwards, who was revered in Minneapolis as a fiery activist with a nose for injustice, died late last month at 81. His legacy spans decades, and his unyielding scrutiny pushed the city’s fire and police departments to diversify their ranks.
More than 100 mourners paid their final respects to Edwards at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis. He was eulogized by the people who knew him best — his friends and family, but also the activists, elected officials and first responders whom he took under his wing over the years.
“Ron’s fight for desegregating the Fire Department is why I’m here and in the position I’m in today,” said Minneapolis Deputy Fire Chief Melanie Rucker.
Community members wiped away tears as they said their goodbyes in front of Edwards’ casket. On display next to the casket was a fire ax engraved with his name.
Firefighters and police officers, many of color, led family and friends into the chapel. The crowd honored Edwards’ legacy with laughter, tears and memories of a man they fondly described as a father figure.
“He gave his all, and I really mean that in the sense of giving to a community,” said Walter “Q-Bear” Banks, a host at Minneapolis’ KMOJ Radio.
While president of the Minneapolis Urban League, Edwards was the driving force behind the effort to desegregate the city’s all-white fire department in the 1970s.
He was an unrelenting critic of police brutality but also a friend to many black officers, whom he backed in their fight to win acceptance in the department. In the 1980s, he sued the department over its minority hiring practices and led a charge demanding a Justice Department investigation into a controversial police shooting.
In his later years, Edwards wrote sharply critical columns in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and hosted a weekly radio show. He was full of inside information and frequently broke news before the larger media outlets got wind of it.
“He was always speaking truth to power,” said former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.
On the North Side, Edwards was looked to as a larger-than-life leader. His mentorship catapulted many young activists to new heights.
Edwards’ protégés include Medaria Arradondo, the Minneapolis Police Department’s first black chief in its 150-year history; Sayles Belton, the first woman and first black mayor of Minneapolis, and Booker Hodges, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety.
Elected officials formally honored Edwards at the funeral. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey proclaimed Feb. 1 as Ronald Edwards Day in the city. And state lawmakers from the House and Senate delivered resolutions that recognized his contributions to the state.
Leaders of the Minneapolis African American Firefighters Association circulated a petition to name a soon-to-be-built downtown fire station after Edwards. The fire chief said he supports it.
“If it wasn’t for Ron, a lot of us wouldn’t be here,” Hodges said. “We’ve lost a gardener, so who’s going to plant more seeds?”
Edwards’ son, Brian Jones, hopes to answer that question. He and his wife, Melissa, plan to launch a foundation in Edwards’ name that will award scholarships to young activists from north Minneapolis. The foundation will also offer legal aid to those who cannot afford it.
“That’s how we want to keep his legacy alive, by helping people,” Brian Jones said.