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Former state representative, civil rights activist Darryl Owens dies at 84

Darryl Owens, a former Kentucky state representative, died Tuesday at the age of 84.

Owens, a Democrat, was a lifelong public servant and advocate for racial justice issues. He broke many racial barriers in the 1980s, becoming the first Black elected official on the Jefferson County Fiscal Court, as well as Kentucky's first Black assistant attorney general. He was also the first Black resident to serve as a Jefferson County commissioner, a position that became largely defunct after the 2003 city-county merger. He served in the General Assembly representing Louisville's District 43 for more than a decade before retiring from the House in 2018. 

Raoul Cunningham, president of the local NAACP, was a longtime friend of Owens’ and managed his unsuccessful primary campaign for Louisville mayor in 1985. Cunningham told WFPL News on Wednesday that Owens will be remembered for his lifetime of service to the community.

“He would speak on the issues, and what he felt, he felt,” Cunningham said. “He would work very tirelessly for the positions he took on social justice.”

Owens was born in Louisville in 1937. He attended Central High School before earning a bachelor’s degree from Central State University in Ohio and a law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. 

In addition to holding numerous public offices, Owens was a practicing attorney, activist and NAACP member. He protested for school desegregation and bussing in Louisville. And Owens helped calm tensions in the city during the 1968 riots that followed the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., according to the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights. The Commission inducted Owens into their Hall of Fame.

Cunningham said he believes Owens’ biggest accomplishment was his work with former state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw to restore voting rights for people convicted of nonviolent felonies. Owen’s was instrumental in getting a bill to pass the House in 2015, and lamented that the Republican-dominated Senate never gave the proposal a hearing

Cunningham said Owens had a unique ability to reach people from different backgrounds and perspectives.

“He was aggressive for the causes [of social justice], but small in stature and quiet,” Cunningham said. “He did not have a threatening type of personality, but could work with people.”

Governor Andy Beshear ultimately restored the voting rights of more than 140,000 Kentuckians with nonviolent felony convictions with an executive order in 2019. 

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer highlighted Owens’ attitude toward affecting change in a statement following news of his death. Fischer tweeted that Owens was both “a kind, gentle person” and “a fierce leader and advocate.”

"He was one of our great social and racial justice warriors,” Fischer wrote.

Leaders of the Kentucky House Democratic Caucus also released a statement Wednesday morning.

“Kentucky lost a true titan last night with the passing of Darryl Owens, a civil rights icon whose legacy also includes championing criminal justice reforms that have made a profound and lasting difference for so many people,” the statement read. “Our caucus … didn’t just lose a former member; we lost a mentor, a statesman, and a beloved friend.”

The Caucus was joined by Kentucky Senator Gerald Neal (D-Louisville) in sending condolences to Owens’ wife, Brenda, and his family. 

“He was always a source of insight, support, and inspiration to me personally, and those that worked with him,” Neal said in a statement. “More than anything, I have lost a dear friend.”

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.