The reaction Ed Willis receives when he shares his story is generally positive, especially when he informs people his reason for joining the Black Panthers was not to kill whites or champion reverse racism.
“The Black Panther Party is quite a mystery to many,” he said. “If you weren’t of a progressive political persuasion, you probably didn’t know that much about them.”
Willis and his wife, Wanda, joined the Oakland chapter of the political organization during a time of social upheaval in the late 1960s. Ed served as security and stockpiled his own weapons, ammunition and Molotov cocktails in case there was an outbreak of guerrilla warfare.
He eventually left the Black Panther Party and more than three decades later found new purpose and faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The two crossroad experiences of the 74-year-old’s life are told in his new book, “Panther to Priesthood,” released earlier this month by Deseret Book.
“Everybody has a story, and I’m not sure if mine is unique or not,” Willis told the Deseret News. “I do wish that Heavenly Father would use it to open some people’s eyes, or even spark somebody’s curiosity to come and see what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is all about, and how liberating it is to serve others for the sake of God’s glory. I’m telling you, there is nothing better.”
Who is Ed Willis?
Willis was raised in Oakland and Berkeley, California.
He grew up in a Christian home, but during his younger and teenage years, Willis faced poverty, drug addiction, some jail time, unemployment, the struggles of racism and family strife, which he describes in his book.
After they were members of the Black Panther Party, Ed married Wanda Williams. She later introduced him to the church.
Willis was baptized in 2006. He has served in multiple leadership positions, including on the African American Public Relations Council.
Why Willis joined the Black Panthers
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in 1966 in Oakland by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The revolutionary organization was part of the Black Power movement and had an ideology of Black nationalism, socialism and armed self-defense, particularly against police brutality, according to African American Heritage records in the National Archives.
The political organization provided the Black community with a sense of leadership, the feeling of being able to contribute to society and determine your own destiny.
“You had men who had well-thought-out plans pertaining to the Black community,” Willis said. “You begin to feel self-empowerment. You begin to hold your head up, you begin to gain dignity. ... You get to the point where you feel like you will support and represent your community at all costs, even if it may cost you your life. This began to be appealing to not only me, but many others, my wife as well.”
Willis served as security for Eldridge Cleaver, the party’s outspoken “minister of information,” who would also join the church in later years. Willis said Cleaver was an intelligent man but his crude language and delivery was offensive to older Black people.
“I did not really care for Eldridge Cleaver, but I cared for the cause,” Willis said.
Collecting weapons was his own idea.
“I had a section leader that I had to report to in case of a guerrilla warfare outbreak, so I wanted to bring something to the table — my own weapons, my own ammunition and Molotov cocktails were part of that process, which my now dear, loving, gentle wife helped me make,” he said.
Willis rubbed shoulders with some famous and infamous names in the party, but after some time began to notice things that made him feel uncomfortable, such as the inappropriate way some young women and girls were treated by male members of the party. That’s when he decided to get out.
“There were a lot of people who came into the organization who had hidden agendas ... and were not willing to change some habits,” Willis said. “I didn’t have any trouble getting out. They had a thing called the Goon Squad that would sometimes come to a person’s residence, and there were rumors of people being beat up or carried away, but they never came to my house.”
How Willis found the Church of Jesus Christ
One of the lessons Willis learned from his experience with the Black Panthers is this: If you are going to die for a cause, make sure it’s the right cause.
“I can say that I was looking for liberty in becoming a member of the Black Panther Party,” he said. “I gained liberty in Christ Jesus when I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was a liberty that I could not attain from any man or men or women of any race, black or white or any other, but I absolutely attained it through Christ. Race was not part of the equation.”
Willis acknowledged past problems for people of African descent in the church, although he’s not had any personally. Regardless of past issues, “the church is open now” to people of all races and cultures, he said.
“There was a time when Blacks couldn’t go to a soda shop fountain and sit at the counter with other whites; we can now,” Willis said. “We have a place at the table now. Come, sit and sup.”
More than 35 years after leaving the Black Panthers, Willis was searching for God. He had experiences with several different Christian denominations and nondenominational churches over the years.
During early 2000s, Willis began attending a popular megachurch in South Central Los Angeles frequented by celebrities such as former NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, actor Denzel Washington, musician Stevie Wonder and actress Angela Bassett. He attended the megachurch three or four times but was only offered one “good morning” by one person.
Wanda joined the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1977. She and her sister, also a member, never tried to persuade Willis to attend Latter-day Saint worship services, but one morning he woke and decided to go with his family to their church. He was impressed by the warm, genuine greetings the mostly caucasian congregation gave his family as they arrived.
He was even more impressed when a member who was also a detective with the gang division of the Los Angeles Police Department guided him to an engaging Sunday School class, followed by the men’s priesthood quorum where the class discussed “the deep things of God.”
“I had never been in a situation like this before and I felt renewed, refreshed and excited,” Willis said.
One singular experience that truly strengthened Willis’s faith happened when he walked by the bishop’s office one Sunday and noticed a “hippie”-looking man seated there, he said.
Willis asked another member if the man was interested in learning about the church and was informed the man was not a member but had come seeking assistance. The bishop intended to help the man, the member said, because the church feels responsible for the community, not just the members, Willis said.
One message Willis hopes readers will take from is story is that God loves all his children.
“The Lord opens up his arms to all of God’s children, no matter what color we are, or no matter what experiences we’ve had, no matter what sins we’ve committed, no matter what our historical ideology was,” he said. “We are absolutely new creatures and in Christ Jesus.”