Major R. Owens, the People’s Congressman (1936-2013)

By Marsha Borenstein

Major_Owens.JPG

Major Owens was an unconventional political leader – a librarian not a lawyer, a work horse not a show horse and not one to court the press rather than his constituents.  He would seem quiet or unassuming at times, but in fact he was a fiery speaker, advocate and organizer whose accomplishments were well known and appreciated by the people whose lives he touched.

Owens got his first lesson in organizing when his parents wrote to the White House praising FDR’s work programs while pointing out that the men in their poor, segregated Memphis neighborhood were turned away when they showed up for work. How surprised his folks were when someone from the administration actually came to their home – and signed up all the men on his block for jobs!

Subsequent battles were not always that easily won. Having resettled in Brooklyn, he became active in Brooklyn CORE, working to fight racism and employment discrimination and becoming active in local community action. As the vice president of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, he orchestrated a rent strike that included placing tenant rents in escrow accounts, a tactic that he is reputed to have invented.

He perfected the political tool of blocking traffic. As a state senator he orchestrated a five-borough action that would have closed all the bridges entering Manhattan to protest proposed massive cuts to the city’s anti-poverty programs, forcing the Administration to relent.

A master of the “inside/outside strategy,” he sat on Mayor John Lindsay’s side of the table as his commissioner of the Community Development Agency that oversaw all of the city’s anti-poverty programs, when activists came to the table to discuss forming a college in central Brooklyn. At night he would meet with the same activists to plan strategy for their next meeting with the Mayor.

After 24 years Owens retired from Congress in 2007, 37 years after the founding of Medgar Evers College. The then president of the college immediately recruited Owens, one of his school’s key founders, to teach in the Department of Public Administration, a job that Owens loved and was perfectly suited for, providing him access to a new generation of young radical organizers. He was a master teacher and his students loved him.

Fifty-percent of the omnibus Americans with Disabilities Act was drafted in one of Owens’ congressional committees. He counseled Justin Dart, a national disabilities rights organizer, to develop a 50-state grass-roots advocacy campaign to bring pressure on every member of Congress. He was particularly fond of a photo leading the Washington Wheel Chair Protest March that is featured in his book The Peacock Elite, A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus. Hint – Major was not one of the “Peacocks.” The book’s dedication reads like a list of Friends of DSA.

Before I became his Congressional Aide, before he retired from Congress, before he became my best friend and we went into business together, I was DSA’s liaison to Owens’ congressional office in Brooklyn. I wrote and called his office when we wanted him to speak at one of our events. He never turned us down. Having once paid dues he believed himself to be a lifetime member of DSA and never let me forget my affiliation with the organization, interrupting me from time to time when I said something that surprised him, with “Is that the official position of DSA?”

His work in Congress focused on the need for peace at the international level, ending apartheid in South Africa and restoring democracy to Haiti. Domestically, his focus included the power of education and the need to extend the civil rights struggles to include the less educated, Americans with disabilities and the economically disenfranchised. Some of his accomplishments revolved around funding for historical black colleges and dedicated funding in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act for parent involvement.

Early in his political career Owens and other elected officials in Brooklyn formed the Coalition for Community Empowerment (CCE) that is credited with elevating the term “community empowerment” to historic heights. Its spirit was never far from his heart.  He frequently called for civil disobedience as the appropriate action for today’s problems – it is what he taught his students. And it is why he kept a banner near the entrance of his office that proclaimed: Enter Here for Peace and Empowerment.”

Marsha Borenstein is a former chair of New York DSA and a former member of DSA’s National Political Committee. She was an aide to Congressman Owens from 2003 to 2007, and remained his partner in community action.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.

Grassroots Fundraising: Paying for the Revolution (9pm Eastern)

June 23, 2017
· 46 rsvps

Are you new to socialist organizing? Or after many years do you still struggle, raising money from members when you need it but without a steady flow of income or budget to plan ahead? Are you afraid to tackle fundraising because it seems so daunting or you are uncomfortable asking people for money?

In this webinar, you will learn why fundraising is organizing, and how to do it – face to face, through fundraising events, and other ideas.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

Instructor:

  • Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

Training Details:

  1. Workshops are free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have preferably headphones or else speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt talt@igc.org.
  5. If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt schmittaj@gmail.com 608-355-6568.
  6. Participation requires that you register at least 21 hours in advance -- by midnight Thursday for Friday's webinar.

NOTE: This training is scheduled for 9:00pm Eastern Time (8pm Central, 7pm Mountain, 6pm Pacific, 5 pm Alaska, 3 pm Hawaii).

Data Security for DSA Members

June 27, 2017

Ack! I googled myself and didn't like what I found!

WHAT: A DSA Webinar about "Doxing"
WHEN: 9PM EST, 6PM PST

We're proud of our organizing, and chapter work is transparent for both political and practical reasons. However, there are basic precautions you can take in this time of rapid DSA growth to protect your privacy.

Key Wiki is a website that meticulously documents DSA activity and posts it for the world to see. If you're an active DSA member, likely your name is on their website. This is an example of "doxing".

As DSA becomes larger, more visible, and more powerful, we might expect that more websites like this will pop up, and more of our members' information might be posted publicly on the web.

Join a live webinar on Tuesday, June 27 with data security expert Alison Macrina, to learn:

  1. what is doxing? with examples and ways to prevent it
  2. how to keep your passwords strong and your data secure
  3. where to find your personal info on the internet and how to get it removed
  4. social media best practices for DSA organizers
  5. what to do if you've already been doxed

Zoom Link: https://zoom.us/j/9173276528

Call-in Info: +1 408 638 0968
Meeting ID: 917 327 6528

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 8 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.