The late Rev. William Bartholomew Howell, a local civil rights activist who fought on behalf of the disadvantaged in Columbus and across the state for more than 40 years, disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Thursday.
Howell, former president and CEO of the local Rainbow Push Coalition, died Aug. 7 at Gentiva Hospice at the age of 82. He was buried Thursday afternoon at Evergreen Memorial Gardens.
Jackson made the remarks while delivering the eulogy at his funeral, which was held at St. Mary’s Road United Methodist Church. About 175 people were in attendance, including many ministers, as well as state and local elected officials.
Those who gave tributes described Howell as a tireless civil rights worker who fought against discrimination of every kind, but didn’t always get the recognition and support he deserved.
Over the decades, he held several positions in the community.
In the 1970s, he served as President of the Columbus-Phenix City Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and as a member of on a special committee that advised the Board of Education on desegregation.
In the 1980s, he was campaign manager for the Third Congressional Districts when Jesse Jackson twice ran for president, and in the 1990s he served on the Martin Luther King Jr. State Holiday Commission.
Jackson, president and founder of the National Rainbow Push Coalition in Chicago, said Howell was a civil rights champion who would be in Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the controversial police shooting of a black teen if he was still alive. He had the audience stand and give Howell a round of applause for his decades of service.
“Bill was a strong worker. He earned his keys to the kingdom,” he said. “He served his time well. It’s a shame to be an old person with a young heart because it’s not being used.”
Jackson said if all of the people who Howell marched for and helped elect to office had attended Thursday’s funeral the pews would’ve been filled. But fighting for justice isn’t popular when you’re alive, and pointed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. “We love martyrs but not marchers so much,” he said.
Other speakers at the funeral included State Sen. Ed Harbison; State Reps. Calvin Smyre and Tyrone Brooks; and Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters.
Congressman Sanford Bishop was unable to attend, said his field representative Elaine Gillespie. But he sent a tribute and a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition, which Gillespie presented posthumously.
Howell was a native of High Point, N.C.. He was a member of the board of Directors of Rainbow Push Coalition and a retired minister of the M.L. Harris United Methodist Church.
Howell held doctor of divinity degrees from Brantridge Forest College in Brantridge Forest, England, and Daniel Payne College in Birmingham, Ala.
Before moving to Columbus, he worked as a police officer, school teacher, hospital chaplain and continuing education instructor.
Harbison said Howell was a friend who he called “Wild Bill” because he was wild about education, wild about justice, wild about serving the Lord.
“We had this relationship because when I first came to Columbus years ago, I spotted something in him that I wanted to be like and I admired that which I also saw in other great leaders like Dr. King and Rev. Jesse Jackson and all of the other genuine civil rights leaders who put their lives on the line every day and were largely unappreciated,” he said. “But we need the Rev. Howells of the world.
"The life he lived I hope will shine the way for decades to come because he was a man truly dedicated to his work.”
Peters said he and Howell became friends in 1971 when he was still deputy sheriff and Howell was a community activist. He said they reminisced about those times a year and half ago, and Howell expressed concern that too many people were in their comfort zone and not willing to fight for change.
People didn’t always like Howell’s message because it made them uncomfortable, he said. Most would rather ignore the problems around them.
But Howell made a difference.
“You never die as long as someone remembers you,” Peters told Howell’s family at the funeral. “He will always be in our hearts.”