Edison Penrow McDaniels

An African American Life


I watched an incredible TV show the other night, Stories from the Road to Freedom, a chronicle of African American life as lived by regular people from Emancipation to the Civil Rights era. My own father was such a man.

He was born in 1923, the son of Oklahoma sharecroppers. Born poor, half-black & half-Indian, as far from privilege as possible within these United States—at a time when the Jim Crow South thrived and to be a black man was to be, at best, a doormat in a society valuing dogs and horses above mere negroes. African Americans were still being lynched with regularity throughout his childhood.

He died, on Jan 2, 2011, as far from that conspicuous and abhorrent idea of humanity as one can venture in a single lifetime, an elder statesman  of 87, the product of a long, eventful, and full life.

Edison Penrow McDaniels came of age in the great and terrible years of WWII. He volunteered for service in the United States Army immediately following his graduation from high school in 1942. He was present at what the historian David McCullough called the most important event and date of the 20th Century, Omaha Beach & the Normandy Invasion on the 6th of June 1944, when the tide of Hitler’s evil was first turned back. He spent the next six months in combat, had 18 trucks blown out from under him, and was finally injured in the 19th truck just days before the Battle of the Bulge. The blast shattered his body but primed his mind to go forth and change the world. He was immensely proud of his WWII service, and it proved to be the priming event of his life. He spoke of it often.

He studied under the GI Bill and, although it took sixteen years, he graduated with a Juris Doctor degree from Southwestern University School of Law in 1961. He entered private practice and devoted most of the next forty years to helping those who needed it most. He developed a nationally recognized Civil Rights practice, spoke for the masses against the bureaucrats, and gave voice to those people who, in the small moments of their lives, ran into injustice and unreason that became the big moments that defined and confined them. He spoke for such folks when they could not speak for themselves, in courtrooms and assembly halls, in council chambers and town meetings. He spoke always with eloquence, and it was one of his most important beliefs that we had to be able to communicate with each other, that the mark of intelligence was the ability of one person to speak with another at his or her own level. 

I once asked him what he thought the most important class he ever took was and he answered that it was English. He told us often that whatever we did in life, we’d have to be able to communicate with our fellows and English was the key to that.

He married twice and had nine children. Two preceded him in death: Ronald Vaughn and Ellys Preston.

Far from a perfect man, he was at times irascible and always difficult. More often than not too strict a disciplinarian, he did not encounter humor well, drank too much when the pressures became too great, and rarely praised those around him, even in the best of times. He was a difficult man mostly, and prone to ego-centrism. His political aspirations were never realized, but even so he helped many, and if he demanded too much of others, he demanded most from himself and was unflinching in his own self-criticism.

He was that rare individual whose life summed to more than its parts. And if any of us saw failings in his later years, it was only because his will to live powered him for so long.

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