“A giant oak has fallen in our forest.” From Blue Hill Avenue to Beacon Street and from Demopolis, Alabama (his birthplace) to Washington, D.C., these are paths walked by Bill Owens. First elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1972 and then as the first Black State Senator in the history of the commonwealth (1974), Bill Owens represented the 2nd Suffolk Senatorial district with dedication and distinction.
As an initiator and supporter of innovative legislation, Sen. Owens helped champion the development of Roxbury Community College, the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic facility, as well as advocating for LGBTQ equality, respect and human rights for all. His activism in education prior to election with the Gibson School movement continued when elected, as well as his outspoken support for incarcerated citizens and their families. Crossing the aisle to support Republican U.S. Sen. Ed Brooke and Gov. Frank Sargent, Bill Owens understood we have no permanent friends or enemies, but permanent interests.
It might have been because of his welcoming smile, gleaming bright eyes or charming personality, but when “the Senator” entered the room there was a special energy and presence about him. Warmth emanated from him and respect was felt by those around him. He had the unique ability to easily relate to people across class and color lines. Without respect to ethnicity, religion, or national origin, “the Senator” could relate to you at a personal, human level.
Not only did “the Senator” command respect by his bearing, he demanded it as a man. When that basic principle was violated and his wife was disrespected by an arrogant attacker outside their business, he stood his ground as a man and fought back. A price was paid and he was arrested, but as in his life, he stood on principle. From Walpole, he rose to become a prominent small business owner of community-based dry cleaners. He worked with the New Urban League and received his Master’s degree from Harvard University. During his public service in the state Legislature he initiated the State Office of Minority and Women’s Business Assistance, promoting community economic development and an assault weapons ban.
Always in the forefront of critical social policy issues, in 1988 “the Senator” filed the first contemporary legislation calling for the commonwealth of Massachusetts to establish a commission to study options for redress to African Americans for the harms done due to slavery in the United States and the commonwealth. This legislation was followed by federal legislation filed by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), now known as H.R. 40. It was his vision and legislative leadership that inspired the efforts that are now surfacing in the Boston City Council with the initiation of a reparations ordinance recently filed for their consideration.
Upon leaving office, Sen. Owens continued to pursue his interests in social policy and human services. He procured legislation that supported the Health Education and Learning Program for Black Males Health (HELP) which serviced communities around the Commonwealth from its base at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Recognition for his legislative distinctions took him abroad. Important discussions were held with African leaders regarding the international implications of reparations. To encourage such efforts, Sen. Owens met with leaders such as Ambassador Dudley Thompson, Martin Luther King, III, and Chief M.K.O. Abiola to spur global activism around these issues. For several years he would continue his career living in Nigeria, initiating a solar energy project while based in Lagos.
His was an illustrious career of global dimensions. As an entrepreneur, educator, public servant and constant advocate for the underserved, “the Senator” was truly a man of the people. Dedicated to their best interests, sometimes even at the expense of his own, he was committed to truth, decency and fundamental human respect and equality up until his death last month.
He served us well and received our love in return. His is a model of a life very well lived. We deeply miss the man who was our brother, father, uncle, colleague, confidant and friend. Much love, honor and respect to you, Senator! May you rest in power!
A longtime friend and associate of Bill Owens, Dr. Jemadari Kamara is Chair and Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Center for African, Caribbean and Community Development at UMass Boston’s College of Liberal Arts.