Bill Perkins Credit: NYC City Council photo

There was still a lively strut in the cut of Bill Perkins when he passed me last summer near 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. He fiddled with his customary hat as we chatted about the pandemic and whether he would compete again in the annual NYC marathon, which he had done over the course of several years.

Unlike in the past, when he would command lengthy moments of political discourse, Bill was brief, as if another urgency was beckoning. He left with a handshake and promised to stay in touch. We learned this morning, Tuesday, May 16, that Bill Perkins has passed on to glory. He was 74 and died at home in his beloved Harlem.

“After a lifetime fighting for justice, equality, and to make our community heard, my husband, former City Councilman and State Senator died at his home in Harlem, the community he loved and fought for his entire life,” said his wife, Pamela Green Perkins.

“May he rest in peace and power.” No cause was given for his death.

Whether as a member of the City Council, where he served Harlem's District 9 from 1998 to 2005 and again from 2017 to 2021, or in the State Senate from 2007 to 2017, representing the 30th District in Harlem, Perkins was a relentless advocate for the marginalized, never wavering in his political and social commitment to his community. As many of his followers often said, “He spoke truth to power.”

The Nation magazine cited Perkins as one of the most effective progressive city leaders in the country, a tribute he acquired after his formidable stand for the Central Park Five and against Donald Trump’s call for the death penalty for the wrongly accused teens.

“A lifelong resident of Harlem,” his résumé noted, “Bill was raised by his mother together with his two brothers and a cousin. While she didn’t have much to give him financially, she fought to get him into good schools and instilled in him the importance of a good education.”

After graduating from the Collegiate School, he attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. In a 2007 issue of the Brown alumni magazine, William Bunch profiled Perkins, recounting his experience with the Central Park 5. “All of the young people in the community were being stigmatized by the rape,” Bunch said. “He remembers worrying about the widespread effects the city’s fury might have—including, for example, the exclusion of law-abiding Schomburg teens from summer jobs.

Bill Perkins Credit: Bill Moore photo

“Meanwhile, some parents of the accused young men approached Perkins to insist that their sons were innocent of the rape,” Bunch continued. “Indeed, despite the videotaped confessions, parts of the young men’s stories didn’t seem to add up—a fact that received virtually no attention at the time. Although the semen sample police retrieved from the jogger’s sock didn’t match any of the suspects, prosecutors countered by saying blond hairs on one of the young men clearly were the jogger’s. ‘These kids are innocent until proven guilty,’ Perkins recalls thinking at the time. ‘What people started telling me was that the stories we were hearing were not accurate.’”

Eventually, after moments of nagging doubts, Perkins testified for the accused. For Perkins, Bunch wrote, “it was a nerve-wracking experience. For Perkins, who’d long held ambitions of winning a seat on the City Council, the case could have been political poison. He recalls being flustered on the stand. At one point, Colin Moore, a defense attorney for one of the youths, tried to establish Perkins’s intelligence and judgment. ‘Didn’t you go to Brown University?’ he asked.”

Another example of the kind of concerned man Perkins was: He spearheaded the successful fight to protect children from the deadly menace of lead in their homes, an action that resulted in the enactment of the Childhood Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 2004. This was just one of the battles he waged and won. Others included diminishing rat infestation, reformation of the MTA, opposing the entry of the U.S. in the war in Iraq, and being the first elected official to support Barack Obama for president. Affordable housing, good-paying jobs, quality healthcare, and an unflinching support of public education were among the hallmarks of his distinguished career.
His courage was truly tested as a colon cancer survivor and he promoted programs of early detection, particularly for childhood diseases, HIV/AIDS, asthma, and maternal mortality.

RELATED: Bill Perkins: A champion for his beloved Harlem

Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, who knew Perkins for many years, said, “It was shocking to hear of Bill’s death this morning. My heart goes out to his wife, Pam, and all of his loved ones. He was a fierce advocate for the village of Harlem, and although we did not always agree on everything, our goals have always been linked to the fight for the betterment of our neighborhoods. Harlem has lost a great warrior today—a giant. I’d like to thank him for his decades of contributions and tenacity.”

“Bill Perkins represents one of the great traditions of Harlem, as one of its own sons… Through poverty at the beginning of an unprecedented period of opportunity, he matriculated at one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in America, Collegiate, and then on to the Ivy League—Brown University,” said Rev. Conrad B. Tillard, of the Black Clergy for Economic Empowerment. “Unlike Black people 10 years older, with his platinum educational credentials, he could literally have walked away from Harlem and into employment, residency, and social status among the 1 percent. Yet he wanted to stay at home and serve his people.”

Tillard concluded, “He did that, as an activist; from the Perry Brothers affair to his tenure on the Council, he did it with style and flair, and like all great Harlem leaders, he walked the streets! He will be missed.”

“Bill Perkins was a lion of Harlem, a real champion of the people,” said Assemblyman Al Taylor. “For more than three decades, Bill fought for our neighborhoods, built up our communities, and defended our people. Truly, no words suffice to honor the life and triumphs of Bill Perkins. I have had the honor and privilege of working alongside Bill for many years, as a community activist, a reverend, an elected, and a friend. I can only hope that I can carry on his mighty legacy of good work for our people. I pray for peace for his family and loved ones and upon this whole community that owes so much to him”

Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park youth who were exonerated, said that “Bill Perkins was a giant in this community who dedicated his life to Harlem, and I extend my deepest condolences to his wife Pam and his children. He fought for change, and his lead paint law has undoubtedly saved countless lives. But I will always be grateful for his support for [the] Central Park 5. In our darkest hours, when it seemed like the whole world was against us, Bill Perkins bravely stood behind and with us. His bravery and commitment to justice were unwavering, and he is a big reason why we were eventually exonerated. Rest in power, Bill Perkins.”

No funeral or memorial services had been arranged at press time.

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