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Congressman Major Owens

Major Robert Odell Owens was born on June 28, 1936, in Collierville, Tennessee, to Ezekiel and Edna Owens.

He served for the NY State Senate (1974-1982) and was elected to the congressional seat of retiring U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm. 

Mr. Owens served New York Eleventh Congressional District (Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) in the House of Representatives for 25 years. He championed the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In his early career, he worked as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library and during his years in Congress, he was an advocate supporter of library funding and education issues.

Congressman Owens was a distinguished lecturer at Medgar Evers College DuBois-Bunche Center for Public Policy, until his passing in 2013.

Congressman Major Owens was an outspoken critic of budget cuts for domestic social services programs and worked passionately on behalf of children and public education. As a member of the Education and Workforce Committee, as well as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Education Task Force, he saw education as "the great civil rights battle of today."

In 2004 the Congressman kindly agreed to an interview by Alice Bernstein which took place in his Brooklyn office some months before the November 2004 Elections. She was affected to see that the powerful fighter on behalf of economic, racial and social justice was not only deeply thoughtful but soft-spoken and modest as well.

Congressman Owen's childhood & early life 

 

From his interview, we learned that growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Congressman Owens was a good student. He liked to read and was inspired by The Call of The Wild by Jack London. When asked what other books he cared for at that age he replied that growing up he had very little exposure to literary work because the libraries were very poor and, non-existent in elementary school. It wasn't until he got to college that he was able to access a variety of books.

 

He went to Morehouse College and majored in math with a minor in education. In his sophomore year, he started taking courses in creative writing which awaken his interest in writing.


Mr. Owens's first profession was as a librarian. It was a practical decision he said because he really wanted to be a writer. Owens paved the way for "placing Brooklyn Public Library collections in public places such as laundromats, stores, bars, and anywhere people gathered," a creative approach to librarianship that foresaw the way BPL envisions community outreach today. 

MRO: "Right next to Morehouse, Atlanta University was offering fellowships in its School of Library Science. They stressed the fact that at that time you could get a job anywhere in the country, and I always wanted to get to New York. I became a librarian in order to be able to eat while working on my creative endeavors. It was an ideal match." 

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Congressman Major Owens interviewed by Alice Bernstein. Photograph © by David M. Bernstein.

When asked what are some of his favorite authors we learned that Congressman Owens was very much impressed by political writers and political nonfiction. In terms of political books, he considered Al Franken's book humorous and very sharp. He named John Dean's book, Worse Than Watergate and Wesley Clark bestseller fascinating books.

In college, he recalled reading classics, including the Illiad and the Odyssey. He fell in love with Shakespeare's books and his son, who is an actor, further generated his interest in it. Mr. Owens managed to write plays, including one Shakespearean as well as writing a novel.

AB: Eli Siegel writes about the beauty and importance of books in Children's Guide to Parents and Other Matters: "Every time you read a book, someone else's feelings meet yours and mix with yours. You are always been affected by other people's feelings, but books are a big way of bringing to a person the feelings he might never have otherwise. "

"Every time you read a book, someone else's feelings meet yours and mix with yours. You are always been affected by other people's feelings, but books are a big way of bringing to a person the feelings he might never have otherwise. "

                                                                                                     Eli Siegel

Education, Legislation & Rap

Congressman Owens was proud of being a steady member of the Education Committee which he referred to as being very unpopular. For simple reasons, he continued by saying that If you are going to raise money for your campaigns you go into Commerce or Ways and Means, and refer to that as unfortunate.  

During his time in Congress, he was able to get a number of bills passed on behalf of education and children. Mr. Owens was a primary backer of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA is a civil rights law that protects people with disabilities and prohibits discrimination against individuals in all areas of public life, including jobs, school, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the public. The purpose of this law is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

AB: What would you most like people to know about you?

MRO: I think I’m an introvert. I have no apologies for being an introvert, a dreamer, fascinated by challenging literary projects, but also fascinated by political and community action projects. I have been able to expand my own personality, habits, and talents in the political arena so that I can be as much of an extrovert as anybody else when it’s necessary.

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Photograph© by Vincent DiPietro 

MRO: I think I’m an introvert. I have no apologies for being an introvert, a dreamer, fascinated by challenging literary projects, but also fascinated by political and community action projects. I have been able to expand my own personality, habits, and talents in the political arena so that I can be as much of an extrovert as anybody else when it’s necessary.

Major Owens was known as the "Rapping Rep" he wrote rap lyrics around his political beliefs. 

MRO: "... One of the things that delight me most is writing rap poems which have become extensions of my remarks from the floor of the House. A rap poem is a style I like—a mischievous way of doing my public duty and at the same time enjoying it from the point of view of a writer."

“I have observed journalist and Aesthetic Realism Associate Alice Bernstein’s work over many years. The free educational performance event, “The People of Clarendon County”—A Play by Ossie Davis, & the Answer to Racism fills a continuing gap in our nation’s civic history and has been eagerly inserted into the calendars of schools, colleges, and libraries. More resources for the replication of this approach would benefit our society immensely.” 

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(l-r) Congressman Major Owens, Mrs. Maria Owens, NY State Senator Eric Adams, Aesthetic Realism Associate Alice Bernstein.
Image © by David M. Bernstein

From Major Owens’ remarks at the Medgar Evers College event, presented in his honor (12/9/2010): “The People of Clarendon County”A Play by Ossie Davis, & the Answer to Racism

“I want to thank Alice Bernstein and congratulate her and Carolyn Jones and all the other people who put this magnificent program together. I’m grateful to all the people who sent me to Congress and who keep me in Congress—among them is Ossie Davis who was part of my first fundraisers. When I was Congressman and decided to have an all-night teach-in, Ossie Davis showed up there to speak with a lot of other people. It’s a miracle that we broke the bonds of fear—including the great heroes, many of them unsung—who launched the lawsuit in South Carolina.

It’s a miracle that we broke the bonds of fear—including the great heroes, many of them unsung—who launched the lawsuit in South Carolina.

I had the pleasure of serving with Congressman Jim Clyburn from South Carolina, so I knew the magnificent story of ordinary people having the guts—it took a lot of guts to do; it should be celebrated.

 

 Thaddeus Stevens, a name nobody knows, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—a white man, who fought day and night to give us the right to vote. Thaddeus Stevens, an unsung hero, refused to be buried in a segregated cemetery and when he died was buried in a black cemetery. Those kinds of heroes exist, and all the others we know beyond Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer—the unsung heroes are many.

 

The kind of things that are being done by Alice Bernstein and the Alliance of Ethics & Art, based on Aesthetic Realism, is great."

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