Houston civil rights activist Ray Hill dead at age 78

HOUSTON – Houston civil rights activist Ray Hill died of heart failure at the Omega House Hospice on Saturday surrounded by family, the hospice confirmed. He was 78.

Hill never shied away from a fight. He was willing to spar with critics and allies alike when he felt an injustice needed righting. A staunch defender of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights as well as a prison reform activist, Hill told KPRC Thursday that his life was guided by one simple principle:

"Get up every morning and do what's right," Hill said.

Hill, one of the founders of what was then called the Houston Gay Political Caucus, fought for equality and free speech.

WATCH: Ray Hill opened up about his legacy in Houston

In recent years, Hill fought to win parole for convicted killer Jon Buice, a reversal from the early '90s, when Hill pushed for the maximum punishment. Buice was one of several who pleaded guilty to killing Paul Broussard outside a Montrose nightclub. Police determined Broussard's murder was a gay-bashing incident, and Buice got the harshest sentence because he delivered the fatal stab wound.

"I got it wrong, pure and simple," Hill said.

Years later, Hill came to believe Broussard's murder had nothing to do with his sexual orientation and that Buice, who was a teen at the time, was genuinely remorseful for what happened that night. This put him at odds with victims' rights advocates, but Hill remained undeterred and advocated for Buice's parole.   

"You can make mistakes, but you've got to clean up after yourself," Hill told KPRC.

Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker said Hill's fight for equality has made him an icon in the LBGTQ community.

"Ray's always had a really clear sense of right and wrong," Parker told KPRC.

She said his sense of right and wrong made Hill unafraid to remain true to his convictions, even when they clashed with those of his colleagues. 

"For a long time, he gave out a business card that said 'pesky, contemptuous, troublemaker' and 'afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,'" Parker said.

Hill also disproved the adage, "You can't fight City Hall." Hill went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to see an old city ordinance struck down. That ordinance made it illegal to even argue with a police officer while they were doing their job. That fight stemmed from Hill intervening on behalf of a friend he felt was being unfairly questioned by police.

"There are very few people who can say they had a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and fundamentally changed how people interact with the police department," Parker said.

While his health was failing, Hill told KPRC he took comfort in knowing he always stayed true to his convictions.

"I tried to always do what was right," he said.

Hill told KPRC he would like his funeral to be held on the steps of City Hall, the same spot where he fought so many battles over the decades.

Mayor Sylvester Turner released the following statement:

“Ray Hill, my friend and warrior, has passed. Fighting for gay rights, human rights, criminal justice reforms, Ray was on the front line and helped pave the way for many others to follow. He was authentic, committed and respected.

"Last week, when Ray Hill posted on Facebook that his heart capacity was at 10 percent, many of his friends had the same retort: At 10 percent, Ray’s heart was still bigger and stronger than most other people’s at 100 percent. It’s true. Ray had a heart for justice, equality and acceptance for decades, and he followed his heart into the streets, courtrooms, city council chambers, legislative hearing rooms, jails, prisons and radio stations of our city and state, advocating for his causes well before they became popular. I’m one of many people who agreed with him about his important causes now. But such positions are relatively easy to take and express now that Ray has blazed the trail. Rest in peace Ray Hill." 

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