[sixties-l] Harry Edwards in the News

From: Jay Moore (research@neravt.com)
Date: 09/24/00

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    Oakland activist takes on new career
    San Jose Mercury News
    September 23, 2000
    At 57, Harry Edwards has been known as many things: noted sociologist,
    political activist, campus protest leader.
    Add another label to the mix: bureaucrat. Or, more precisely, director of
    the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation.
    That puts him in charge of neighborhood parks throughout the East Bay's
    largest city, a $27 million-a-year operation hobbled for years by
    mismanagement and, most recently, scandal.
    Whether as a young activist at San Jose State University -- where he led a
    black student protest that forced cancellation of the opening football game
    in 1967 -- or as the man who inspired one of the most famous protests in
    Olympics history, Edwards has savored each role.
    In his newest endeavor, however, he is not counseling professional athletes,
    advising major-league teams such as the 49ers or sitting in an ivory tower
    at the University of California-Berkeley, where he has been a popular
    sociology professor.
    The former Black Panther now deals with community issues such as rats that
    infest inner-city swimming pools. At the same time, he is trying to drum up
    corporate and non-profit support for community events and facilities.
    But why tackle such seemingly provincial problems when the worlds of
    academia and professional sports still beckon?
    Simply put, Edwards says, his life's work had lost some of its edge: ``I had
    been staring out the same university window for 30 years. Not that it had
    become boring, just predictable and routine.''
    So when Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown approached Edwards for the $135,000-a-year
    job, he jumped at the chance. He accepted a two-year contract and took a
    leave of absence from UC.
    ``It's not a step down,'' he said. ``Any time you can come in and serve
    children and citizens of a city, it's a step up to the plate to do what you
    need to do to justify your time.''
    Adds San Francisco 49ers General Manager Bill Walsh, ``I think it's his way
    of contributing to society. He likes to take on a challenge, and he's needed
    a challenge for some time.''
    There have been naysayers, of course, dubious about Edwards' qualifications
    to manage such a post.
    Edwards quickly counters that his duties with the 49ers, working closely
    with Walsh, and his former consulting job with the Golden State Warriors
    prepared him for this.
    ``I didn't care who he was or how controversial he was. I was only
    interested in one thing -- can he do the job,'' said Oakland City Manager
    Robert Bobb, who works closely with Edwards.
    Edwards points out that even before his name was a blip on Brown's radar, he
    was touting the role that community parks and recreation play in helping
    reach black youth. He had even mapped out his ideas in a 1998 cover story
    for the Civil Rights Journal.
    Yet Edwards' journey fighting for racial equality began years before he took
    the Oakland post.
    Born in East St. Louis, Ill., the second of eight children, Edwards escaped
    severe poverty and moved with his grandmother to Fresno, where he became a
    state and national junior collegiate discus thrower.
    He later moved on to San Jose State University, where he got involved in
    track and basketball. There, he quickly made himself known, forming San Jose
    State's first black student organization. He subsequently attended Cornell
    University, where he received his master's and doctoral degrees in
    FBI target
    Caught up in the black power and civil rights movements, he joined the Black
    Panther Party. He soon became a target of FBI surveillance as he lectured
    throughout the country.
    But it was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City that thrust Edwards into the
    international spotlight.
    While still teaching at San Jose State, Edwards -- with the support of black
    leaders -- formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
    As part of that effort, Edwards urged black athletes to boycott the
    Olympics. While there was no formal boycott, medal-winning sprinters Tommie
    Smith and John Carlos sent shock waves through the sports world when they
    raised their clenched, gloved fists in a black power salute as the national
    anthem played.
    In those days, Edwards preached about an overemphasis of sports on black
    youth -- to the neglect of academic, personal and cultural growth. Today,
    while he maintains his position is unchanged, he says the issue has become
    more basic: survival.
    ``My generation came up in the 1960s,'' he says. ``We overturned and
    overthrew, incited rebellion in virtually every institution. At a
    fundamental level, we now have an obligation to begin the process of
    rebuilding that which we disrupted, that which has given everyone an
    opportunity to sort out and sort through. It's time for us 55- and
    60-year-olds to step into the fray.''
    Sports as a hook
    Sports, Edwards adds, ``may be the last hook and handle that we have on a
    whole generation. And it is my responsibility to become involved directly
    through the trenches.''
    Given this attitude, his latest venture -- overseeing more than 300
    full-time employees and restoring Oakland's 109 parks, 22 recreation
    centers, swimming pools, golf courses and community programs -- isn't
    In fact, it might prove to be his most challenging undertaking yet, what
    with allegations of corruption and fraud already waiting for him and his
    staff to sort out.
    Among those allegations: that some employees collected paychecks for workers
    no longer there while others rented out city facilities and stashed the
    cash. Civil and criminal investigations are under way, and according to
    Edwards, several employees have resigned or been fired.
    There are those already critical of Edwards' managerial style.
    ``I don't have a lot of people telling me Harry Edwards is great and I'm
    glad he's here,'' said Margaret Cunningham, field representative of Service
    Employees International Union Local 790, which represents a majority of the
    department's workers. Cunningham said she believes Edwards has unfairly
    smeared the department with a broad range of unsubstantiated allegations.
    ``He's not out there with his employees in a positive way, only out there to
    check up on them and be censorial,'' she said. ``They are not seeing a
    strong motivator.''
    Edwards pays this criticism no mind.
    ``It was chaos,'' he said. ``You find $690,000 lying on the floor in bags
    and boxes, grant money that nobody knows was there, a check showing up for
    ``And just when you think you've seen everything, you find out the rats are
    running the people away from the swimming pools,'' he said of rodents that
    had infested a West Oakland pool.
    But Edwards thrives on chaos:
    ``When I found out how bad it was, I became very excited. I don't mind
    controversy. I was born in controversy, whether it was at San Jose State or
    Cornell. I think it's the biggest part of my personality.''
    Imposing figure
    At 6-feet-8, with a shaved head, gray beard and baritone voice, Edward cuts
    an imposing figure for a parks chief. ``I could walk in a room and say good
    morning, and people respond as if I've just issued a death threat or a
    non-negotiable demand,'' Edwards said.
    Those who've known him over the years insist he hasn't changed.
    ``If there's anything about Harry that is true, it's that he doesn't seem to
    have mellowed, grown older or lost his passion for these issues,'' said UC
    sociologist Troy Duster, who's known him 27 years.
    Robert Blauner, a retired sociologist, has an entire chapter on Edwards in
    the latest book he's writing. ``I say Harry is sui generis, which means in
    general terms he's his own kind,'' Blauner said.
    Edwards also moonlights as a consultant with the state's Department of Parks
    and Recreation. He still travels, writes and lectures, though not as much
    because of his current post. He makes about $7,500 to $10,000 per speaking
    engagement. In between, he finds time to study and listen to jazz.
    ``I've always had a whole bunch of things going on because I'm bored very
    easily,'' said Edwards, who has lived at the same Fremont home for 30 years.
    His wife, Sandra, is an assistant superintendent at Milpitas Unified School
    District. He has two daughters and one son.
    In her autobiography, Maya Angelou described him as an angry man. Asked
    whether he was still angry, Edwards said, ``You can't live in this country
    and see as many things as I see and not be angry.''
    Eventually, Edwards says, he'll probably return to Berkeley to teach, a
    profession he loves. One thing's for sure, he said: ``I have no intention of
    dying in this chair. I'm here to get a job done.''
    Contact Sandra Gonzales at sgonzales@sjmercury.com or (510) 839-5321.

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