Former Rep. Major Owens, Met Council Activist, Dies at 77

Major OwensMajor R. Owens, a former vice president of Met Council who went on to serve 24 years in Congress, died on Oct. 21. He was 77. 

Born in Tennessee, Owens moved to Brooklyn after getting a master’s degree from Atlanta University and worked as a librarian. He became active in the civil-rights movement in the early 1960s and chaired the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality. He was Met Council’s vice president from 1963 to 1966, and is credited with orchestrating the first rent strike where tenants put their rent in escrow accounts. He and Esther Rand cowrote a handbook on organizing to win repairs and services, and he called himself “a proud bearer of the philosophical DNA of Jane Benedict”—Met Council’s principal founder—at her memorial service in 2005.

After heading the city’s anti-poverty programs under Mayor John V. Lindsay, he was elected to the state Senate in 1974. In 1982, he ran for Congress, succeeding Shirley Chisholm, and would represent the Brooklyn district centered on Crown Heights until he retired in 2006.

In the House, Owens earned the nicknames of “the Education Congressman” and “the Rapping Rep”—the former for his support of increased aid to education, which he called “the kingpin issue”; the latter for delivering rhymes like “Stop the war, we need the cash! Give Medicaid families all of Rumsfeld’s stash” during a debate on the Iraq war. He was also a floor manager for the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

Met Council’s Facebook page honored him as “a true fighter for tenants, the working class, the poor, and against oppression everywhere.” Housing Notebook cohost Scott Sommer called him “the best” and “often our go-to guy for stuff large and small.”