Living Legends: Ray Miller
The former Ohio State Senator and Founder of the Columbus African American News Journal talks public health, working across the aisle, and what still needs to be done for equality.
February 18, 2021
This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the history makers who throughout their careers have served as leaders and role models in the Columbus community.
Former Ohio State Senator Ray Miller on the importance of open dialogue in crafting good public policy.
Few careers stack up to that of Ray Miller, a former Ohio State Senator and Ohio Democratic Minority Leader.
Ray was only the 13th African American elected to the Ohio Senate and played a crucial role in passing legislation for the advancement of education, mental health services, and minority health in the state. As if that weren’t impressive enough, he also founded the Columbus African American News Journal.
Calvin Cooper, Co-Founder and CEO of Rhove, sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with his mentor, colleague, and longtime friend about public service, power, and much more. Here are the highlights, condensed for clarity:
Ray Miller, Interviewed by Calvin Cooper
What inspired you to run for public office?
My dad was a great mentor. And then I started loving newspapers when I was 13 years old. On the East Side of Columbus, on 18th Street, there was a bookstore, Riley Randolph's bookstore, and he had all of the Black newspapers from all over the country—the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender. And I would just go in there for hours, Calvin, and just read. I was amazed by the things that Black people were saying and doing with such authority.
I was a good musician and played ball and all of that. And when the guys always wanted me to go play ball, I said, OK, after I read, then we’ll go and play some ball. So that’s a bit of my background in terms of my interest in politics—because that’s what I was reading. I was reading all about political decisions, campaigns, public policy, the Civil Rights Act, and all of that kind of stuff.
I believe that there is such a power in words, and it’s fascinating that that’s what inspired you to run for public office. You’ve accomplished so much in your career. What are you most proud of?
On the public policy front, I would have to say, number one, the establishment and creation of the Ohio Commission on Minority Health. I put a lot of work into that. Whenever you do anything in a legislature anywhere in America that’s directed towards uplifting people of African descent, it’s going to be a challenge. You just have to walk in the door knowing it’s going to be a challenge because the legislation says African American or Hispanic or Native American. You’ve got to overcome that hurdle first.
Healthcare has always been a real interest to me. My first brother got leukemia and unfortunately he died, which was a real challenge for me. And then my next brother—I was fortunate enough to have two—he was a great musician. He could sing, he could play the trumpet, he could play the bass. He was just incredibly talented. He gets hooked on crack cocaine and gets shot to death. My younger sister had some challenges. You know, we don’t spend enough time looking at the source—what’s the cause of the problem? I didn’t think I knew anything about mental health until I started looking at her life, in particular, and other people that I knew. So, alcohol, drug addiction, mental health issues have always been high priority for me. And my mother ended up dying at age 59. That’s the background on my public policy involvement, and just persistence, to do some things that really can make a difference in people’s lives.
We’ve seen in this pandemic that minority communities—particularly Black and Latinx ones—have been disproportionately affected by public health issues. Why is there still such a large racial disparity in public health? What can we do about it?
One key area that we’re so deficient in is just understanding one another. Racial understanding, if you will. An emphasis on cultural competence is of critical importance. And we have to fund it to make sure we’re doing the right kind of training, and then open it up, not just some training for some selected leaders or professionals, but it needs to be broad and open to everyone.
A part of dealing with racism and discrimination is just having open conversations. I think when you’re able to have dialogue, and just speak the truth as you know it, then we’re much better off as a people.
One of the most important lessons you taught me was about power, and the power in the seat that you’re in. What is power, and what responsibility do we have to use it for good?
I always say that power is the ability to cause someone to do that which they would otherwise not do. We have a responsibility to act boldly and very substantively. I see these bills, I mean, please. Whose picture is on the $20 bill, I don’t care. I really don’t care. That’s not going to move the needle for these people in the community. We’re seeing homicides in our community every night and it hurts me to the core to see these young African American men killing one another. And then we’ve got the problem with the police, with the criminal justice system, with the law enforcement. So, we don’t have time for shallow legislation that you might simply want to move forward so that you can get your name and picture in the newspaper. That’s not feeding anybody’s children, that’s not getting anybody educated, that’s not helping us to develop our businesses. We’ve got to have substantive legislation.
We are living at an important moment in American history, and in Black history in particular. The story is being written right now. In 2041, when the News Journal writes an article about the progress we’ve made, what will the story say?
Well, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure there are very definite achievements and not shallow things. I hope that in 2041 we come back together and we can point to specific advances that we have made. Real changes. I hear everyone saying racism is a public health crisis, and racism is this and that. And it is. There’s nothing worse in the legacy of America than racism and slavery and everything that has caused a number of people to be disadvantaged. We’ve got to be very serious about substantive change.
Driving Substantive Change
If we learn anything from Ray Miller it’s that substance matters.
From his time serving in the Ohio Senate to his creation of the Columbus African American News Journal, Ray is a man of substance. He’s an inspiration and a force for substantive change.
Through his work within two of society’s great institutions—policymaking and journalism—he has helped shape the future of our city, state, and country. We couldn’t be more honored to have this Living Legend share his story.
This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the history makers who throughout their careers have served as leaders and role models in the Columbus community. Tune in each week for new interviews, and follow us on social media for more inspiration from our Living Legends.