By Marsha Borenstein
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.