Turning Interests And Passion Into Action
Trained as a librarian, civil rights activist Major Owens was a community "reformer" who became New York City's top anti-poverty administrator, then served for eight years in the New York State Senate and went on to serve for 24 years as successor to the legendary Brooklyn U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm.
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Major Robert Odell Owens was born in Collierville, Tennessee, on June 28, 1936, to Ezekiel and Edna (Davis) Owens. Owens’ father, a day laborer in a furniture factory who espoused President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal philosophy, shaped Owens’ political views at an early age.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the fact that a much bigger world than my own personal universe was out there,” Owens once remarked. “We were very poor and always had to struggle to make ends meet. Still, I was also aware that we were not alone—that millions of people, in this country and abroad, faced similar kinds of problems. I also realized that what happened in the larger world affected my family and its personal welfare.”
He also recalled that his mother, “the scholar of the family,” influenced his approach to academics. His parents’ optimism about their children’s futures left Owens with the attitude that “there was no reason why I couldn’t go out and scale life’s summits.”
Early on, he aspired to be a novelist. He attended public schools in Memphis, Tennessee, graduating from Hamilton High School. In 1956, Owens earned a B.A. with high honors from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. A year later, he completed an M.A. in Library Science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta).
In 1956, Owens married Ethel Werfel. They raised three children—Christopher, Geoffrey, and Millard—before divorcing in 1985.
Geoffrey, an actor, landed a regular part on The Cosby Show and has a rich body of other work as well. He and his wife have one son. http://www.geoffreyowens.com/gallery-reviews
Chris became many things -- a community activist, singer-songwriter, and candidate for several political offices, including Congress. He currently leads The Re-entry Bureau for Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez www.brooklynda.org/reentry, and also composes and performs original songs www.oledude.rocks. Chris, a widower, is the father of two sons.
Millard ("Mitty") has for years been a community organizer and activist with a special interest in economic empowerment and community development. He lives in the original Owens family home on Prospect Place. Mitty has a daughter.
Major Owens later married "the love of his life," Maria Cuprill. Mrs. Owens was the staff director of an Education and Labor subcommittee in the U.S. House. She brought two children, Carlos and Cecilia, to the marriage who each of have children of their own.
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After graduating from Atlanta University with his Master's degree, Major Owens took a job as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library's Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza in 1958. He worked there until 1966, advancing to the position of Assistant Director. He became active as a Democratic Party reformer during these years and was involved in community organizations and the broader civil rights movement.
Critical issues during this time included police brutality and law enforcement accountability, affordable housing, voting rights (voter suppression by Brooklyn's Democratic Party), workers' rights, support for quality day care, support for public education, the inclusion of Black History in curricula, and quality political representation.
In 1961, Owens joined the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), later chairing the organization. He also was vice president of the Metropolitan New York Council on Housing. In 1965, Owens pursued a seat in the New York City Council against a powerful Brooklyn incumbent. The "Brooklyn Freedom Democratic Party" was formed to advance the causes championed by CORE, MetCouncil and political "reformers." Owens lost badly. He later said that he learned how to win by being defeated.
From 1966 to 1968, Major Owens served as Executive Director of the Brownsville Community Council, after having rescued the organization from a funding crisis. One observer described him as “the most canny and capable of the community corporation directors.”
Based on Owens' work on antipoverty programs in the Brownsville neighborhood, New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed Owens to the position of Commissioner of the Community Development Agency (CDA). Major Owens had been given responsibility for all of the City’s anti-poverty programs.
During his tenure as CDA Commissioner, Owens identified and fought against corruption within the antipoverty programs he supervised. Owens' efforts, as well as his criticism of certain political leaders in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx, sparked feuds that lasted for many years.
Owens' work with CDA also provided him with opportunities to support innovative neighborhood projects. One of these was the fledgling "Weeksville Society." Over the next 50 years, the Society evolved into The Weeksville Heritage Center that we know today.
Owens left the Commissioner position in late 1973, near the end of Lindsay’s second term as Mayor. At this time, Owens taught as an Adjunct Professor of Library Science at Columbia University, where he also served as Director of the Community Media Program.
In 1972, Owens served on the International Commission on Ways of Implementing Social Policy to Ensure Maximum Public Participation and Social Justice for Minorities, which was hosted at The Hague in the Netherlands.
Owens' second attempt to win elected office was in 1974. He won a newly-created seat in the New York State Senate, where he then chaired the Senate Democratic Operations Committee. Eventually, Owens served on the Finance Committee and the Social Services Committee, and became ranking member of the chamber’s Daycare Task Force.
Owens also supported a number of local and statewide political candidates operating "outside" of the Brooklyn Democratic "machine"—a role he would take on personally during the 1982 Primary Election for the U.S. House of Representatives.
After U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm announced her retirement in 1982, Owens became a candidate for her seat, which then encompassed the neighborhoods of Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and Crown Heights. The Congressional district was roughly 80 percent black, overwhelmingly Democratic, and was afflicted by a high poverty rate and "urban blight." Also, voter turnout was traditionally low.
In the 1982 Democratic primary for Congress, Owens faced a former colleague, New York State Senator Vander L. Beatty. Considered the leading "reformer" among local politicians, Owens now had grass–roots support of his campaign, the campaign management skills of William "Bill" Lynch, and the endorsement of many unions as well as The New York Times. Beatty, also African American, was backed by many top Democratic leaders.
During the campaign, Owens exploited Beatty’s connection to the local Democratic Party's corruption challenges and to its suppression of Black voters. The Owens campaign stressed his honesty and independence from the local political machine. Winning the endorsements of the NY Amsterdam News and The Village Voice, Owens prevailed in the primary by 2,400 votes and then survived a questionable court challenge from Beatty and his backers. (Six months later, Beatty was indicted on charges of election fraud.) In the general election, Owens cruised to victory, defeating Republican David Katan with 91 percent of the vote. Owens was re-elected to 11 two-year terms thereafter.
In Brooklyn, Major Owens' elevation to Congress allowed him the political latitude to promote a "reform oriented" approach to local politics. Working with the Hon. Albert Vann, Bedford-Stuvesant's NewYork State Assembly representative, and other elected officials from different areas of Central Brooklyn, Owens became a founding member of the Coalition for Community Empowerment. The CCE used its influence in taking on a number of issues during the following three decades. The Congressman was also instrumental in the development of a broader leadership coalition, the African American Clergy & Elected Officials coalition (AACEO), which continues to meet monthly and engage important issues. https://www.ourwatchfuleye.org/aaceo
When Congressman Owens took his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, he received assignments on the Education and Labor Committee (later Education and the Workforce) and the Government Operations Committee (later Government Reform). He remained on both panels throughout his House career. In 1987, Owens became Chair of the Education and Labor Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights — a position he held until the Republicans won control of the House in 1994 and abolished the subcommittee.
Owens became a significant advocate for education during his 12 terms in the House. “Education is the kingpin issue,” he explained. “Proper nurturing of and attention to the educational process will achieve a positive domino reaction which will benefit employment and economic development.… The greater the education, the lesser the victimization by drugs, alcoholism, and swindles.… We have to believe that all power and progress really begins with education.”
By the 109th Congress (2005–2006), Representative Owens was the third–ranking Democrat on the Education and the Workforce and the Government Reform committees. In addition, he served as the Ranking Minority Member on the Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. Owens was also a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Progressive Caucus, which included the House’s most liberal Members.
Upon first entering Congress, Owens surveyed the effects of the depressed economy in the early 1980s, Owens determined that he would “push the prerogatives of a congressman to the limit” to publicize the needs of inner–city Americans. “My principal focus is on jobs and employment. From my perspective, the Democratic–controlled House has been extremely negligent in this area. It has shown little, if any, urgency about the plight of the unemployed.”
Owens focused on a cause near to his heart: pursuing more Federal money for education and libraries, which dovetailed with the needs of his urban district. From his post as Chair of the Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights, Owens focused on restoring Federal funding for library services, institutions of higher learning, and programs to alleviate the high school dropout crisis in the Black community.
Owens also served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus' Higher Education Brain Trust.
In 1985, Major Owens wrote portions of a higher education bill that provided a fund of $100 million to improve the programs and the infrastructure of historically Black colleges (HBCUs) as well as CUNY's Medgar Evers College. He called the measure “the payment of a long overdue debt” in response to critics who charged it was “unwarranted special treatment.”
Owens was also successful in modifying the formula used to calculate Title I funds available to elementary and middle schools. For years, Brooklyn -- with the largest population of needy students -- had been receiving the lowest per capita allocation of Title I funds. Teaming up with a Republican, Staten Island Congresswoman Susan Molinari, Owens modified the allocation formula, bringing millions of additional Title I dollars to Brooklyn (and Staten Island) schools.
When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, Owens advocated that money being shifted from military to domestic programs should be appropriated for American inner cities. “We need our fair share of this peace divided, in particular to rehabilitate crumbling and dilapidated inner–city schools, and to guarantee a first–rate education for urban youths,” he said.
Owens criticized budgets presented during the administrations of Republican Presidents Ronald W. Reagan and George H. W. Bush, asserting that they neglected the pressing need of minorities. On the House Floor in 1990, he belted out some lines from a rap song he wrote:
At the big white DC mansion
there’s a meeting of the mob.
And the question on the table is
which beggars they will rob.
Owens was also critical of President Bill Clinton's administration after the concept of "Opportunity To Learn" standards was essentially removed from important education legislation. OTL would have mandated that states ensure that all schools receive comparable resources to address their educational needs -- including capital improvements.
From his subcommittee post, Representative Owens was a primary backer and a floor manager of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a landmark civil rights law that Owens said set forth “clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”
Among the ADA's provisions were the first guidelines prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities in businesses and public spaces and the establishment of standards for accessibility to public buildings. The measure also contained provisions to promote development programs for preschool children and to introduce new technologies to assist students with disabilities, which Owens had championed earlier.
“A civilized and moral government which is also seeking to enhance its own self–interest must strive to maximize the opportunities for the educational development, equal access and productive employment of all its citizens,” Owens noted. “Greater than all the physical barriers are the barriers of entrenched attitudes and the silent insistence that people with disabilities should be grateful for minimal governmental protection and assistance.”
The ADA endures as one of America's significant -- though underappreciated -- pieces of civil rights legislation. Millions of children and adults from every class, race and ethnicity benefit from the ADA every day.
Representative Owens was the lead sponsor of the Domestic Volunteer Service Act, providing for major reforms to the long–established Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, which assigns volunteers to community–based aid agencies to combat urban and rural poverty. Additionally, he was a key backer of the Child Abuse Prevention Challenge Grants Reauthorization Act of 1989, which renewed a measure first passed in 1974. In addition to defininght "child abuse" and "neglect", the bill provided states federal funding to assess, investigate, and prosecute cases of child abuse; conduct research; and compile data.
In the early 1990s, Owens helped reauthorize legislation that encouraged states to offer people with disabilities jobs through rehabilitation centers and homes where they could live independently. From his seat on the Education and the Workforce Committee in the late 1990s, Owens supported hikes in the federal minimum wage, opposed efforts to eliminate cash compensation for overtime work, advocated the continued need for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and defended organized labor.
Since many of his constituents were of Caribbean descent, Owens also sponsored two pieces of legislation that were considered to be important to immigrants: a bill that prevented the Immigration and Naturalization Service from deporting the parents of American–born children under age 18 and a measure that extended citizenship to immigrant children under age 12 who were in the U.S. without their parents. In response to a shortage of teachers -- particularly teachers of African descent -- Owens also supported special initiatives to recruit qualified teachers from Caribbean nations to come and teach in New York City public schools.
Over time, the makeup of Owens’s Brooklyn–based district changed. In the early 1990s, following reapportionment after the 1990 Census, Blacks still made up a sizable majority of the district; 19 percent was white, and 12 percent was Hispanic. That round of reapportionment expanded the western borders of the district to take in the wealthy Park Slope neighborhood and middle–class Kensington.
During the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of Haitians began moving into the district, making it the second–largest community of Haitians in the country, second to Miami. Roughly two–thirds of the district’s black population (then 55 percent) were from nations in the Caribbean Basin. Immigrant groups complained that Owens was “totally out of touch with the Haitian community,” willing to support the return to power of ousted President Jean–Bertrand Aristide, but less active regarding issues such as housing and political asylum. Owens dismissed such charges as “total distortion,” ascribing them to members of the Haitian community who did not approve of his support for Aristide.
The changing demographics of Owens' Congressional district, and the changing nature of New York City's political landscape, resulted in unsuccessful Democratic Primary challenges against Owens in 2000 and 2004. (The latter was prompted by the Congressman announcing his intention to seek only one more term in office.)
Owens believed in the arts and in the power of the written word. He expressed these beliefs through his "Egghead Raps" on various subjects -- all entered into the Congressional Record while he was in office. He wrote all the time -- speeches, opinion pieces and issue propaganda, and strategic plans.
Owens' politics were both radical and practical. He was unafraid to take on the local Democratic Party, Mayors, Senators, and Presidents, as well as the National Rifle Association (who, in turn, "targeted" him.) He was an economic populist, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a staunch supporter of Black political empowerment, and a true believer in the value of cross-cultural coalitions. Owens attempted to use the militancy of Malcolm X to support the philosophy and goals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All of this expressed itself in the legislation he drafted or supported, as well as his local community initiatives.
Major Owens was actually known nationally for his "Special Order Speeches" every Tuesday night from the floor of the House of Representatives. (One great irony was that many residents of Brooklyn never saw these speeches due to limitations in cable television programming and distribution. At this point in history, CSPAN was not available to all.)
Shortly after his first re-election to Congress in 1984, Major Owens decided to support the movement to create a national holiday in memory of Dr. King by founding the Central Brooklyn Martin Luther King Commission. www.cbmlkcommission.org The national holiday did not exist until 1986, but the Commission started a year earlier and continues its work with schoolchildren in Central Brooklyn to this day through art, essay and poetry contests.
Owens retired from the U.S. House of Representatives at the end of 2006. He was succeeded by U.S. Representative Yvette D. Clarke. In total, Major R. Owens had won 16 terms in office and lost one election. His combined years in public service came to nearly 38 years.
In a public service career filled with great moments, Major Owens said that the greatest was personally witnessing the 1994 inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first President of the Republic of South Africa. Some 13 years later, as a newly-retired private citizen, Congressman Owens stood in the cold with the thousands who personally witnessed the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barack H. Obama. When he endorsed Obama for President in late 2007, he did not really believe that America would elect a Black President. He knew, however, that Mandela's election meant that anything was possible and that Obama could win.
After leaving the House of Representatives, Major Owens pursued his interest in writing. “It’s something that I have always wanted to do,” Owens said. “I even began writing a novel when I was younger. And that’s one of the things I want very much to get back to.” He did complete a spy novel and a play about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves.
Owens was named a distinguished visiting scholar at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, where he completed a case study in 2011 of the Congressional Black Caucus and its impact on national politics. This work, entitled The Peacock Elite, was self-published.
Owens also joined the faculty of CUNY's Medgar Evers College and became a highly-regarded instructor.
For the record, Major Owens was a fan of college football, in particular, but also a fan of the New York Giants and, in baseball, the New York Mets. Owens was an intellectual with varied tastes. He loved William Shakespeare's King Lear and Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He was also fascinated by African drum rhythms, rap and spoken word. Ironically, his favorite pop songs were Maggie Mae by Rod Stewart and Delta Dawn by Helen Reddy -- because he could understand the lyrics.
Major Robert Odell Owens died of heart failure due to complications from diabetes on October 21, 2013, in New York City, New York. His homegoing service was hosted by the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, right on his beloved Eastern Parkway. The late Rev. Clarence Norman, Sr., presided. Owens' former colleague, the late Congressman John Lewis, spoke, along with former New York City Schools Chancellor and Medgar Evers College President Rudy Crew.
The extraordinary legacy of Major Owens includes countless accolades and awards (including "Major R. Owens Day" celebrated along Eastern Parkway in 1973), the development of a generation of elected leaders through anti-poverty organizing, the empowerment of organized labor, better-funded schools in Brooklyn, Federal support of HBCUs, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and much more.