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

By Marsha Borenstein

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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.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

April 24, 2017
· 46 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming a Queer Socialists Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
· 55 rsvps

Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
· 11 rsvps

Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

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

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

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

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

May 06, 2017
· 52 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  2 pm ET; 1 pm CT; 12 pm MT; 11 am PT.  

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 18 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.