William Donlon Edwards

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"Congressman Edwards, a Stanford law graduate, was elected to Congress in l962. The decade preceding his election saw the height of "McCarthyism." Under the banner of rooting out Communism, federal and state employees lost their jobs, Hollywood screenwriters and others were blacklisted, law-abiding citizens had their phones tapped, their mail opened, and their meetings infiltrated. Fear of being labeled "soft on Communism" was rampant. In the U.S. Senate, Joe McCarthy led the campaign to identify Communist sympathizers. In the U.S. House of Representatives, similar efforts were undertaken by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

"Although McCarthy had departed, HUAC was still in full swing when Edwards arrived in Congress. He was appalled that vestiges of McCarthyism remained within HUAC and he determined to speak out in favor of its abolition, notwithstanding any threat such a stance would have to his own personal career. He was one of only twenty congressmen who voted to abolish HUAC during his first year in Congress. As a result of his persistent efforts, HUAC was abolished several years later.

"Edwards served in the FBI before coming to Congress, as well as in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War, but he was deeply concerned about the FBI’s Cointelpro program. Under Cointelpro, the Bureau conducted large-scale, ongoing undercover investigations of law-abiding citizens simply because it did not approve of their views. Edwards used his position on the House Judiciary Committee to investigate and expose Cointelpro’s surveillance operations, which ultimately resulted in the closing of all the Bureau’s domestic security files in which criminal conduct was not at issue. His efforts also helped set the precedent that the FBI was subject to congressional oversight.

"As it turned out, Edwards’s career did not suffer from his brave stands against HUAC and FBI abuses. Instead, he was reelected time and again, ultimately serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for thirty-two years, twenty-three as chair of the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. During this time, he continued to swim against the tide of popular opinion when justice and fairness so required, successfully insisting against his party’s opposition, for example, that President Nixon be afforded due process, including legal counsel, in his impeachment trial.

"In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Texas statute making it a crime to burn an American flag was an unconstitutional limitation on free speech. There was an immediate outpouring of passion and calls to amend the Constitution but Edwards managed the defeat of the amendment. He also insisted on adherence to the Constitution throughout the l980s when Congress took up crime bill after crime bill as legislators discovered that being perceived as "tough on crime" was popular with the electorate. He insisted, for example, that the accused in all cases be provided counsel. He also opposed mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the growing use of the death penalty. " [1]

He is married to Edith Wilkie.

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  1. Human Rights Magazine, abanet, accessed April 19, 2010.