From the historic highs of our nation inaugurating our first African-American president to the tragic lows of the institutionalized racism and violence that continue to permeate our society, Black History Month feels more meaningful every year. As we seem to make progress towards equality of hopes, opportunities, and accomplishments, we are also reminded of how much work remains.
Two recent events especially reveal this truth.
Massachusetts lost one of the most remarkable figures in our Legislature’s nearly 400-year history with the death of Senator Bill Owens on January 22.
Senator Owens had a particularly impactful legislative career. During his decade in the Senate, he helped create the state’s Office of Minority Business Assistance as well as the Summer Youth Jobs Program. Decades before it became a topic of national conversation, he pushed for legislation outlining reparations to the descendants of enslaved Black Americans.
He was also Massachusetts’ first Black state senator.
I can hardly imagine how difficult a situation this must have been in 1974 as racial tensions heightened both in and out of Boston. Being the first person to do anything is rarely easy. Senator Owens boldly stepped into uncharted territories on behalf of our Commonwealth. His brave service was a representation of what is possible. Senator Owens proved that Black people could not only win state elections but also be a driving force for landmark legislation.
Most recently, on January 11, Lydia Edwards won election as the state senator for the First Suffolk & Middlesex District. She is the first Black woman to hold this office and, like Senator Owens half a century before her, will be one of only a very small number of legislators of color on Beacon Hill.
Massachusetts can be a state of contradictions. We are praised in other parts of the country as a cradle for bold thinking and nation leading policies, yet we continue to lag other states in terms of income inequality. We may be home to the university at which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his PhD, but we are also home to the penitentiary where Malcolm X spent most of his 20s. Senator Bill Owens entering Massachusetts’ racially homogenous legislature marked serious progress 50 years ago, but today the membership of our legislature still does not reflect the diversity of our Commonwealth.
Frederick Douglass once said that “Truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.” When the renovation of the historic State Senate chamber was recently completed, the Senate chose to display these wise words prominently above the Senate floor. They serve as a reminder of a lofty yet attainable ideal. They watch over every decision we make in our historic chamber.
We still have so much more work to do to make our Commonwealth a place where Black people can enjoy the same access to opportunities as all others. Thanks to pioneers like Senator Bill Owens, we know that we can make meaningful progress through our courage and conviction. We can best honor his legacy by working together, by moving from a lone voice to voices united in the pursuit of Frederick Douglass’ ideal of truth, justice, liberty, and humanity.
I believe we will ultimately prevail.