Former Kentucky state lawmaker, civil rights leader and 'quiet warrior' Darryl Owens dies

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He grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Louisville’s Sheppard Square public housing. His mother, a $5-a-day housekeeper, had to buy used clothing for him and his sister.

He got his first taste of racial discrimination when they ventured downtown to lunch counters that wouldn’t serve them and department stores where they couldn’t try on clothes.

But stressing a holy trinity of religion, family and education, Dorothy Minter Owens raised a son who quietly became a giant as a civil rights leader, public servant and a man of firsts: the first Black assistant attorney general and the first Black countywide officeholder.

Darryl T. Owens, former state representative, county commissioner, juvenile court judge and NAACP president, died Tuesday night. He was 84.

He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease and cancer, illnesses that his lifelong friend Raoul Cunningham said he bore bravely.

In a tweet, Mayor Greg Fischer said Owens was “a kind, gentle person and also a fierce leader and advocate for our city and commonwealth. He was one of our great social and racial justice warriors.”

Gov. Andy Beshear said Owens dedicated his life’s work to the people of west Louisville and Kentucky and “broke barriers and paved the way for generations to come.”

Former state Rep. Charles Booker said simply, “Tonight, I am heartbroken.”

Owens wasn't a loud leader. When he ran for mayor in 1985 (he finished second to Jerry Abramson), his friend attorney Gerald Neal, later a state senator, said, “Darryl was never the ranting and raving type of individual.”

But enshrining him in its hall of fame, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights described him as a “model of leadership.”

He served the 43rd District in the House of Representatives from 2005 to 2018.

And representing Jefferson County's C District — which was 65 percent white — he won plaudits on the old Fiscal Court from community leaders even in neighborhoods that gave him few votes by paying prompt attention to constituent concerns.

He also shepherded such measures as a landlord-tenant act through Fiscal Court.

Owens also walked a fine line between fighting for issues that such as desegregation and open housing and loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Owens won some public posts in the 1970s, including appointment to the juvenile court bench by then-County Judge-Executive Todd Hollenbach and to the state Workers' Compensation Board by then-Gov. Julian Carroll.

But Owens gained his first widespread recognition in a role for which he had no official title: spokesman against the merger of the Louisville and Jefferson County governments.

Marshaling an alliance between Black city residents, who feared they would lose their political clout, and white suburbanites leery of a centralized government, Owens emerged as the leader of a grassroots movement that twice triumphed over Louisville's power structure before the city-county merger passed in 2003.

With his serious demeanor, aversion to alcohol and lifelong allegiance to the Baptist church, Owens should have been a minister rather than a lawyer, The Courier Journal wrote in 1985 when he ran for mayor.

"I think Darryl is a candidate the Christian community can be proud of," said Tom Riner, a fundamentalist minister and then conservative state lawmaker. "I think we both have the same role model: Jesus."

But Owens also won support on the left, including from activist Anne Braden, who said he would “best serve the poor, the elderly, the people who have historically been discriminated against.”

Born in Louisville in 1937, Owens grew up in Smoketown.

“Darryl didn't get into any trouble and everybody got in trouble in Smoketown," Geoff Ellis, his boyhood friend and eventual NAACP leader, once said. "He was pretty well-mannered, and a lot of kids resented him for that."

He graduated from Central High School and left Kentucky in 1955 to earn a bachelor's degree from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and later a law degree from Howard University in Washington.

After commanding "a couple of hundred" men as a lieutenant at an Army induction station in Oakland, California, Owens and his first wife, Faye McBride, returned to Louisville, where they had two daughters.

Owens practiced law and quickly became active in social and political causes, joining open-housing demonstrations and stuffing envelopes for state Sen. Georgia Davis Powers.

He was credited with calming the unrest after the deaths of 10 people during civil rights demonstrations in 1968 and after firebombings at Zion Baptist Church and the Newburg Community Center.

In 1973, he volunteered as one of the lawyers for the NAACP in its historic and tension-charged lawsuit to desegregate local schools. He later said the threats at home got so bad he had to instruct his daughters not to answer the phone.

Owens adopted a low profile in the busing case, lead counsel Robert Sedler later recalled.

“There was a tendency of a lot of Black leaders to do a lot of posturing,” he said. “Darryl didn't operate that way."

In the Kentucky House, from which he retired in 2018, he was the architect of the Economic Opportunities Act, which promoted minority-owned businesses in Louisville, and of landmark felony expungement legislation in 2016.

The state Chamber of Commerce gave him its “MVP award” for that bill.

Owens lived with his second wife, Brenda, in the Chickasaw neighborhood.

Cunningham said Owens also quietly stood up for women’s rights.

When the Green Street Baptist Church, in which they both grew up, wouldn’t allow women to preach, Owens left the church in 1999, Cunningham said.

Louisville attorney Aubrey Williams, also a former NAACP chapter president, said Owens was a "dedicated, resolute and fearless warrior in the movement and struggle for justice and equality of Black people. He was also a dedicated and effective public servant. Furthermore, he was an accomplished lawyer and a wonderful mentor to the lawyers in my age group. He earned his stripes."

Reporters Phillip M. Bailey and Krista Johnson contributed to this story.

Editor's note: A previously published version of this story incorrectly stated that Owens was the first Black candidate for mayor in Louisville. In fact, Leo Lesser Jr. ran in 1973 and Milburn Maupin and Lois Morris both ran in 1977 before Owens' bid in 1985.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Former Kentucky state Rep. Darryl Owens dies

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