Today's Paper State News Hutchinson 2024 LEARNS Guide Newsletters Opinion Sports Obits Games Archive Notices Core Values

Arkansas Senate pioneer Lewellen, 71, dies after illness

by Bill Bowden | March 23, 2023 at 3:22 a.m.
Roy C. "Bill" Lewellen, one of the lawyers for the Lake View School District, answers questions Feb. 10, 2004, after the first meeting of the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed masters with the various interested parties in the lawsuit. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

Roy C. "Bill" Lewellen of Marianna, the second Black person to serve in the Arkansas Senate in the 20th century, died Tuesday at a Memphis hospital after a long illness. He was 71.

First elected in 1990, Lewellen served for 10 years in the Senate and was sponsor of the law that created the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, which works to assure that all Arkansans have equal access to quality health care, regardless of race or ethnicity, and to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities in Arkansas.

Lewellen was one of the plaintiffs' lawyers in the landmark school funding case filed in 1992 by the Lake View School District, a rural district in Phillips County, according to an Arkansas Senate biography of him.

"After years of litigation, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lake View, citing the state's constitutional duty to provide all Arkansas children with an adequate and equitable education, regardless of the prosperity or poverty of the region in which they lived," according to the Senate biography. "The case was the catalyst for substantial improvements in public schools across Arkansas."

Lewellen was lead sponsor in the state Senate of the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993, the culmination of the work of the Governors' Task Force on Civil Rights, which was formed in 1991 by then-Gov. Bill Clinton.

Before all that, Lewellen served on the Marianna City Council.

Lewellen was born Nov. 18, 1951, according to his Arkansas voter registration records.

He was the son of Roy C. Lewellen Sr. and Ethel Brewer, said his cousin, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, who is also from Marianna.

"He was more like a big brother, actually," said Slater.

He said Bill Lewellen graduated from Anna Strong High School in Marianna.

Lewellen attended Arkansas AM&N College in Pine Bluff, where he met Doris Ann Brantley of West Helena.

"On the first day of classes, Doris went to English 101, took her seat, and was immediately annoyed by an energetic enthusiastic young man, Roy C. 'Bill' Lewellen, who continuously tried to take her pencil," according to her 2016 obituary.

The couple married in 1973 and had two children.

Slater said Lewellen attended law school in Little Rock, commuting from Marianna.

"He experienced his entire career in Marianna," said Slater. "He never wanted to leave. He enjoyed the experience of representing his hometown in the Legislature. That was where he decided he wanted to make his mark."

Retired Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Olly Neal Jr., who is also from Marianna, agreed.

"Bill made his mark, there's no question about it," said Neal. "He was not to be tampered with."

Neal said he was particularly grateful for a lawsuit Lewellen filed in the 1990s to force the leadership of the Lee County Cooperative Clinic -- which was "in big trouble" -- to change direction. The clinic was a Volunteers in Service to America program that provided medical care to the county's poor. Neal was the clinic's first director.

Another case of note, said Neal, was when Lewellen filed suit in federal court against Prosecuting Attorney Gene Raff and co-defendants who had accused him of witness tampering. Lewellen won, said Neal.

"He would fight back, and that to me was a profound fight he did," said Neal.

U.S. District Judge George Howard Jr. ordered a stop to the prosecution of Lewellen, according to his Senate biography.

"Judge Howard said charges against Lewellen were in bad faith and had been filed by prosecutors with no expectation of a valid conviction," according to the biography.

Neal, 81, said he didn't know Lewellen well when they were growing up because they were 10 years apart in age, but he knew Lewellen's family. Neal said the elder Roy C. Lewellen was known as Cebo and the younger Roy C. was nicknamed Billbo.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Roy C. "Bill" Lewellen was the first Black state senator elected from Lee County since the 1870s.

After leaving the Senate, Lewellen continued to advocate for small rural school districts facing consolidation and inequitable treatment, according to the Arkansas Democratic Party.

Slater said family gatherings were often held on Sundays at Lewellen's house.

"He was always the host, every Sunday everybody is coming in from all over to be with him at his place," said Slater. "He was the cook and the server."

Slater said Lewellen had a classic sartorial style.

"Bill was never really flashy," said Slater. "He was a Brooks Brothers kind of guy."

But not always.

"I remember a pair of Stacy Adams [shoes] he had that you could literally see your reflection," said Slater.

Sen. Jerry D. Jewell, a dentist, served in the Senate from 1973 to 1994. He was the first Black person to serve in the Arkansas Senate since Sen. George Bell, who served until 1894, according to the Senate.

 Gallery: Roy C. "Bill" Lewellen, 1951-2023

Print Headline: Senate pioneer Lewellen, 71, dies after illness


Sponsor Content