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Brooklyn remembers Congressman Major Owens

Major Owens at a rally to protest taking the land for the eventual Barclays Center site under eminent domain. All photos from the Eagle file

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Tributes poured in yesterday for Major Owens, the Brooklyn Democrat who served 12 terms in the U.S. House and was credited with helping to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, after it was learned that he had died at age 77.

Owens died Monday night at NYU Langone Medical Center of renal failure and heart failure, his son Chris Owens, who is also active in local politics, said.

“Congressman Major Owens was an intellectual giant in public service and a true believer that government exists to advance the quality of life for its residents. He will be dearly missed by all Brooklynites, especially those who were fortunate enough to benefit from his leadership,” said Borough President Markowitz.

"Congressman Major Owens was a true Brooklyn champion who served the public with distinction for decades. As a Congressman, community leader, and tireless social justice advocate, he always put Brooklyn first,” said Ken Thompson, Democratic nominee for Kings County district attorney.

“Today, New York lost a legend,” said Councilwoman Letitia James. “Congressman Owens’ commitment to working people in our city was remarkable; as were his accomplishments on behalf of his diverse district in Brooklyn.”

Owens was born in Collierville, Tenn., and earned a bachelor's degree from Morehouse College and a master's of library science at Atlanta University. He worked as a librarian at the Brownsville branch of the Brooklyn Public Library before becoming involved in local politics.

In the late 1960s, Owens was recruited by then-Mayor John Lindsay to serve as commissioner of the New York City Community Development Agency, which oversaw anti-poverty programs. He was elected to the state Senate in 1974, defeating two opponents in the Democratic primary.

He was elected to the U.S. House in 1982 after Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s district was split in two Owens' diverse Brooklyn district included heavily Caribbean-American neighborhoods, upscale Park Slope and a large Hassidic area in Crown Heights.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a lifelong Brooklynite, said Owens "had many outstanding traits but none finer than his passion for justice, which burned so brightly in his soul throughout his career and his life."

According to his son Chris, Congressman Owens sponsored and passed more legislation than any other African-American member of Congress since Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. In addition to the aforementioned Americans With Disabilities Act, items he sponsored included legislation that would keep illegal firearms off the streets and legislation that would require a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases.

In 2004, Owens faced three challengers for the Democratic nomination --  Councilwomen Yvette Clarke and Tracy Boyland and educator Gabriel Pearse. Although he eventually won the primary, Owens said at a rally, “It hurts when your former proteges turn against you.”

Toward the end of his tenure in the House, Owens actively opposed developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan. In 2006, Owens, Councilwoman James and state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery filed an unsuccessful amicus brief to stop the demolition of several buildings in the plan’s “footprint.”

At one rally, he said the land seized for the Nets arena (now the Barclays Center) and housing complex would comprise “one of the biggest giveaways in the history of this state.”

After Owens declined to run in 2006, Yvette Clarke won his seat, and still holds it.

In addition to his political activities, Owens wrote four 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 non-violent Civil Rights Movement.
  • Thomas and Sally – A play based on the 40-year relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings.

He also wrote and presented “Egghead Raps” on the floor of Congress and at various venues in his district.

In addition to his son Chris, Owens is survived by another son, Geoffrey Owens, an actor who played Bill Cosby’s son Elvin on “The Cosby Show” as well as three other children and his wife, Maria.

October 22, 2013 - 4:00pm


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