A month after the historic election that turned him into the first Black state senator in Massachusetts history, Bill Owens spoke to a crowd of 20,000 at Roberto Clemente Memorial Park at a 1974 demonstration against racism.
“At some point we have to make a decision,” he said, taking his turn to speak after national civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and comedian Dick Gregory. “Stand up or lie down and die like dogs.”
A powerful voice for racial equality in Boston and beyond, Mr. Owens died Jan. 22 in a skilled nursing facility in Brighton, to which he had moved a few months earlier from his longtime Mattapan home. He was 84 and his health had been failing even before a recent positive test for COVID-19.
“He was unapologetic about fighting for equal rights for Black Americans,” said US Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Invoking the long-ago campaign slogan of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the US House, Pressley said that “to be ‘unbought and unbossed’ is not easy. Many people like the catch phrase but few understand what it’s like to practice it. Senator Owens was the embodiment of that.”
“He was a leader among us and he was helpful to many of us in terms of our success in government,” Gloria Fox, a former state representative, said of Mr. Owens.
With the 1974 election that elevated him from state representative to state senator, “we finally had a leader in the Senate who looked like us,” she said. “And he was a wonderful human being.”
Byron Rushing, whose tenure as a state representative overlapped with Mr. Owens’s time as a senator, praised his “his tenacity around those issues that were going to protect and strengthen the Black community.”
Mr. Owens “understood his place in history. He understood that someone had to stand up and tell the truth about Massachusetts politics,” said US Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who was a state representative in the early 1970s when the Legislature, in fits and starts, finally created a district that would make it possible for voters to elect a person of color to the Senate.
“For 50 years, Bill has been my friend and inspiration, and his presence grounded me in the realities of today’s problems,” Markey said. “And his spirit has lifted my gaze and the gaze of others to the justice that still needs to be created for future generations.”
Born on July 6, 1937, in Demopolis, Ala., William Owens was one of eight children. His father, the Rev. Jonathan Owens, was a Baptist minister. His mother, Mary Alice Clemons Owens, taught in a one-room schoolhouse and sold insurance.
As a youth, Mr. Owens attended Eastern Star Baptist Church in Demopolis, where Abernathy, his pastor, gave him fledgling leadership roles in church affairs.
At 15, he joined his older brothers in Boston, where he graduated from English High, and sang with his brothers as part of the Owens Brothers musical group whose popular songs included “Night Train.”
He attended Boston University and left before finishing a bachelor’s degree. He later received a master’s from Harvard University and had begun doctoral studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst when he left to enter politics.
Elected to a state representative seat in 1972, Mr. Owens was part of the Black Caucus that advocated during redistricting for the creation of a Senate district that could elect a Black senator.
His advocacy on behalf of the Black community and other minorities continued when he left the House after one term to join the Senate.
Along with helping to create the state Office of Minority Business Assistance, the Summer Youth Jobs Program, and the Minority Health Commission, Mr. Owens was a key lawmaker in pushing the Legislature to pass an assault weapons ban for Boston.
He also was a Senate leader in securing a $30 million appropriation to build Roxbury Community College, and for building what is now the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center adjacent to the college.
Long before the topic gained sustained national attention, he called in the late 1980s for the state to pay reparations to Massachusetts residents who were descendants of enslaved Black Americans.
“We cannot move forward until we’ve addressed the past,” he told the Globe in 2002. “I still believe we cannot move forward in honest race relations until we have addressed the past, until the government here has apologized for the deed of slavery.”
Elected as a Democrat to the House in 1972 and the Senate in 1974, Mr. Owens became disenchanted with the Senate’s Democratic leadership in 1981, when he split away from supporting Senate President William Bulger and changing his enrollment to Republican.
In 1982, Mr. Owens lost his Senate seat to Royal L. Bolling Sr., whom he had defeated in the 1974 Democratic primary for the same Senate district.
The two ran against each other five times over the years, and Mr. Owens won again in the 1988 Senate primary after he switched back to the Democratic Party.
Bolling and Mr. Owens were each part of political families. Bolling’s son, Royal Jr., served as a state representative until Mr. Owens’s sister, Shirley Owens-Hicks, defeated him in 1986.
“There are essentially four ways of operating here,” Mr. Owens told the Globe in 1992, a few months before he lost a Democratic primary re-election bid to Dianne Wilkerson and left the Senate for good. “You can negotiate, legislate, litigate, or confrontate. Before, I might have opted for confrontation first. Today, that is definitely the last option on my list. I do as much negotiating as I possibly can.”
Mr. Owens, whose marriages ended in divorce, had six children.
“My dad was born with this deep sense of what justice looks like, and for our family he was the center of wisdom, kindness, love, and generosity,” said his daughter Sharra Owens-Schwartz of Arlington.
“For me, he was my superhero,” she said. “He showed up for me in a tremendous way every time, and there was nothing that my dad couldn’t do. He showed up for family, he showed up for community, and he was always full present. It was remarkable. You wouldn’t know he had so much going on.”
In addition to his daughter Sharra and sister Shirley, Mr. Owens leaves three sons, Curtis of Franklin, Bill Jr. of New Bedford, and Adam of Mattapan; two other daughters, Laurel of Roxbury and Brenda Richard of Boston; another sister, Roberta Owens-Jones; 12 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
“My father was a father figure for so many people,” Sharra said. “I’ve gotten so many calls from people thanking me for sharing him with them, recounting stories that he was their father, as opposed to their biological father.”
That was the case politically, too.
Pressley said that if “there not been a Bill Owens as our first Black state senator, I do not believe there would be an Ayanna Pressley currently serving in the US Congress.”
Mr. Owens, she said, often reached out to offer “his opinion, guidance, and wisdom” during her years as a city councilor, congressional candidate, and US representative.
“He did not stop serving, he did not stop fighting, he did not stop leading,” Pressley said, “and he did not stop mentoring and inspiring.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.