Born Robert Odell Owens in Collierville, Tennessee on June 28, 1936, Major Owens was raised in the Memphis area by his parents, Ezekiel Owens, Sr. and Edna Davis Owens. He attended Alexander Hamilton High School, leaving at age 16 to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta on a Ford Foundation scholarship. His classmates included the late Maynard Jackson (former Mayor of Atlanta), Don Clendennon (former star of the New York Mets) and Rev. William Guy (father of actress Jasmine Guy).
Remembered as a quiet, brilliant and stubborn young man, Major Owens received his B.A. in Mathematics from Morehouse in 1956, with a minor in Education and Library Science, and then received his M.S. in Library Science from Atlanta University one year later. After traveling and studying in Europe, Owens moved to New York City, settling in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood. He joined the staff of the Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch at Grand Army Plaza. Owens became the Community Coordinator at the Brownsville branch in 1964, where he started to grow his political roots.
While with the library, Major Owens became active in local community action and the Civil Rights Movement. As a member of the Congress of Racial Equality’s Brooklyn chapter, Owens worked to fight racism within New York City and employment discrimination. The organization used the threat of blocking traffic at the 1964 World’s Fair as a political tool, foreshadowing future actions. As the Vice President of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, Owens orchestrated a rent strike that included a new tactic — the placement of tenant rents in escrow accounts.
In 1966, Major Owens was asked to assist the nascent Brownsville Community Development Corporation in obtaining funds through President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Owens was successful and became the corporation’s executive director. The BCDC became one of New York City’s most successful community action programs, with Head Start and manpower development. BCDC is currently the sponsor of the Brownsville Multi-Service Family Health Center, the first freestanding federally qualified Community Health Center to secure Joint Commission Accreditation in Brooklyn.
Owens’ work was brought to the attention of Mayor John V. Lindsay, who recruited him to serve as Commissioner of the New York City Community Development Agency (CDA), with oversight over all of the city’s antipoverty programs. Owens was commissioner from 1968 – two weeks after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – through the end of the Lindsay Administration in 1973. In this position, Major Owens was responsible for 500 grass-roots agencies throughout the city’s 26 designated poverty areas. At its peak, the program funding surpassed $100 million.
While leading the Community Media Library Program at Columbia University’s School of Library Science, Major Owens launched his campaign for the New York State Senate from Brooklyn’s 17th District. This Senate District was an open seat created in 1974 as a result of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit. Owens defeated two opponents in the Democratic Primary, guaranteeing him the election.
As State Senator, Major Owens was an active member of the New York State Black & Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus. His work included organizing protests against the severe cuts to community programs and social services in 1975 during New York City’s fiscal crisis – including blocking commuter traffic at various points across the city. Owens also became involved with reform politics in Central Brooklyn. Owens started recruiting additional candidates for local offices through the Central Brooklyn Mobilization in Brownsville. In 1976, CBM candidate Thomas Boyland was elected to the New York State Assembly and, in 1978, CBM won two Democratic State Committee positions from the Democratic machine.
In 1982, Shirley Chisholm announced her intention to retire from the House after her 12th Congressional District was divided into two parts. Major Owens entered the race and won. This campaign also brought together Major Owens and William “Bill” Lynch for the first time. Lynch, who died earlier this year, was the campaign manager for Owens and went on to become a major force in New York City politics for the next three decades.
During his 24 years in the House of Representatives, Congressman Owens focused on legislation and initiatives consistent with his personal philosophy of political and economic empowerment. He served on the House Education Committee and on the House Committee on Government Operations. From 1988 to 1994, he served as Chair of the Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights. (He was often the only member of New York City’s Congressional Delegation to sit on the Education Committee.) Through his committee work and work with the Congressional Black Caucus’ Education Brain Trust, Major Owens became known as “The Education Congressman”.
A portion of Congressman Owens’ legacy includes the following:
Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). With more than 50% of the ADA under the jurisdiction of his subcommittee, Congressman Owens formed a coalition of advocates, civil rights leaders and elected officials to launch a 50-state campaign to improve and then pass the ADA. These improvements included sections that specifically benefit schoolchildren and led to additional legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Title I Funding. An Owens amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Assistance Act Title I program required that a minimum of one percent of the budget be spent on “parent involvement” activities by local education entities. Congressman Owens also pushed through an important change to the Title I Funding formula that reallocated New York City’s funding by county. The city’s most populous borough, Brooklyn, has received millions of additional dollars for Title 1 eligible students and schools than it would have under the previous formula.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In 1986, Congressman Owens engineered the passage of a Title IIIB amendment to the Higher Education Assistance Act, which for the first time, created a permanent stream of assistance for more than 100 financially strapped HBCUs. Since the first year of passage, these institutions have collectively received more than five billion dollars of federal assistance. Owens fought to further change the law to include “predominantly” Black colleges, a change that passed after he left Congress with the support of then-Senator Barack Obama and Illinois Congressman Danny Davis. This change has provided Medgar Evers College, CUNY, with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Congressman Owens was an active CBC member. In addition to his leadership of the Education Brain Trust – promoting science and math education as well as reading, Owens led the CBC’s Task Force on Haiti. The task force was successful in convincing President Bill Clinton to restore the democratically elected administration of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Congressman Owens also prepared the annual Alter-Budget, used to provide a progressive alternative to the regular budget proposals – particularly during the presidential administrations of George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.
In conjunction with the other Congressional Black Caucus members, Congressman Owens worked relentlessly and successfully to achieve the designation of the Martin Luther King Federal Holiday and the imposition of sanctions against the racist South African regime. One of the highlights of his career was attending the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of the new South Africa. Another highlight was the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Congressman Owens took pride in the fact that during his time he had sponsored and passed more legislation than any other African-American member of Congress since Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. In addition to the items already listed, Owens’ sponsorships included legislation that would keep illegal firearms off the streets and legislation that would require a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases, allowing local law enforcement officials to check the background of prospective buyers for a criminal record. Owens also directly sponsored and successfully managed the passage of legislation on child abuse prevention, television decoding for the hearing impaired, assistance to abandoned infants, assistance to children with disabilities including special education, child adoption amendments and domestic violence prevention.
Congressman Owens was a force behind the successful passage of legislation on plant closing notification, extended employment benefits, child care expansion and the very important increase in the minimum wage. He led the crusade for the “right to strike” legislation, which would prohibit employers from hiring permanent striker replacements.
Congressman Owens was also known for his weekly one-hour “Special Order” speeches, made famous by C-SPAN, and for his reading of “Egghead Raps” into the Congressional Record – earning him another label, the “Rapping Congressman”. Owens made political waves by endorsing Rev. Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean and Barack Obama early in their presidential campaigns, as well as early endorsements of Ruth Messinger and John Liu when each campaigned for Mayor of New York City, amongst others.
Locally, Congressman Owens joined with other elected officials to form the Coalition for Community Empowerment in Brooklyn. The CCE became involved with neighborhood and citywide campaigns with significant – sometimes historic — consequences for the future of New York City. These included support for Elizabeth Holtzman’s successful 1981 campaign for Kings County District Attorney and David Dinkins’ 1989 election as Mayor.
Congressman Owens also founded the Central Brooklyn Martin Luther King Commission, a not-for-profit organization committed to educating youth about the legacy of Dr. King through annual essay, poetry and arts contests. The commission has hosted its annual celebration on Dr. King’s birthday since 1985 – one year prior to the official start of the national holiday.
Congressman Owens’ funding assisted in the renovation of the Brownsville Recreation Center and with the expansion of Medgar Evers College. At the BRC, a music studio has been named in his honor, and at Medgar Evers College, a science lab sponsored by NASA has been named for Congressman Owens.
Since his retirement from Congress in 2007, Congressman Owens was a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center in the Library of Congress. At his death, Owens was a Distinguished Lecturer and a member of the DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy at Medgar Evers College, City University of New York. Owens served as President of the Central Brooklyn Martin Luther King Commission, and as a member of the Board of Brooklyn For Peace and the legal nonprofit organization, Advocates for Justice, as well as an Advisory Board member of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled.
Over the years, Major Owens has remained connected to his first profession as a librarian. He is considered a scholar and national expert on library education and information development. He has taught at Columbia University’s renowned library school, and was a featured speaker at the White House Conference on Libraries in 1979 and 1990. In 1996, Major Owens was awarded a Lifetime Membership in the American Library Association.
Amongst many awards, Owens was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree in 1988 from Atlanta University, receiving the same honor from Audrey Cohen College of Human Services in 1990, and then from Gallaudet University in 1995. In 1973, Brooklyn Borough President Sebastian Leone honored Owens’ service to the city, then known as “The Quiet Man from Brooklyn”, with “Major Owens Day” in September 1973 – including a parade on Eastern Parkway.
In addition to being a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and an author of numerous journal articles, Congressman Owens wrote three books and a play:
• The Peacock Elite: A Subjective Case Study of The Congressional Black Caucus
• The Taliban in Harlem – A novel exploring urban upheaval and religion-based domestic terrorism.
• Roots and Wings – A novel highlighting the Southern Student Nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.
• Thomas and Sally – A play based on the 40-year relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.
In addition to writing, Congressman Owens loved the performing and graphic arts as well. His favorite dramatic work was Shakespeare’s King Lear, and his musical tastes ranged from Helen Reddy and Pete Seeger to KRS-1 and Beethoven. Owens’ favorite painter was Pablo Picasso.
Major Owens was a fan of the New York Mets but loved college football, in particular.
Major Owens married Maria A. Owens in 1989; each had children from a previous marriage. The blended family of Major and Maria included five children: Chris, Geoffrey, Millard, Carlos and Cecilia, and eight grandchildren. Owens was previously married to Ethel Werfel Owens. They were married in 1956 and divorced in 1985. Congressman Major Owens is also survived by four siblings – Ezekiel Owens, Jr., Edna Owens, Mack Owens and Bobby Owens.