Owens, Major 1936–
Major Owens 1936–
Librarian, politician, writer
Frustrated by Conservative Administration
Major Owens advocates a strong connection between communities and their libraries. His opening address to the 1992 National Conference of African American Librarians centered on the theme “Culture Keepers: Enlightening and Empowering Our Communities.” Having dedicated his life to public service, Owens functions as the voice of social awareness in the New York borough of Brooklyn, linking the populace to their literary, cultural, and political roots. In 1983, he became the only librarian in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Owens was brought up in Memphis, Tennessee, and pursued his higher education in Georgia. He received his bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College in 1956 and his master’s degree in library science from Atlanta University a year later. After graduation, he moved to New York to join the staff of the Brooklyn public library in 1958. He soon became embroiled in the civil rights movement and local politics, working as the chairman of the Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality from 1964 to 1966, participating in the Metropolitan Council on Housing, and joining the ranks of the Democratic party.
By 1968, Owens had moved further into the fields of politics and community service. New York City mayor John Lindsay appointed him Commissioner of Community Development for the City of New York, making him responsible for the organization and supervision of antipoverty and self-help programs. Six years later, in 1974, he was elected to the New York State Senate.
Although no longer employed as a librarian, Owens remained a staunch advocate of advancements in the field of library science. As a senator, he pushed for library and education funding and served on the New York Governor’s Commission on Libraries and Information Sciences. He consistently urged librarians and legislators to work together toward common goals. “To get the proper legislative package through a state legislature,” he told the White House Preconference on Libraries and Information Services in 1977, “we must develop simple models, examples, and prototypes of the kinds of library services the average citizen can look forward to if the necessary legislation is enacted.”
Throughout the 1970s, Owens stayed active in the field by teaching and speaking. He served as director of Columbia University’s Community Media Program; organized and ran a seminar entitled “Issues for Community Change and Development” at Pratt Institute’s Graduate School of Library and
At a Glance…
Born Major Robert Owens, June 28, 1936, in Memphis, TN; son of Ezekiel and Edna Davis Owens; married wife, Ethel, 1956 (divorced, 1985); children: Christopher, Geoffrey, Millard. Education: Morehouse College, B.A., 1956; Atlanta University, M.L.S., 1957.
Brooklyn Public Library, librarian, 1958-66, community coordinator, 1964-66; executive director, Brownsville Community Council, 1966-68; commissioner of Community Development for New York City, 1968-73; director of Community Media Program at Columbia University, 1973-75; member of New York State Senate, 1974-82; U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, congressional representative from New York’s 12th District (later 11th), 1983—; appointed chair of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, 1987; also chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Higher Education Braintrust. Keynote speaker, White House Conference on Libraries, 1979.
Member: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (lifetime member), Congress of Racial Equality, Congressional Black Caucus, New York State Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, 100 Black Men, Central Brooklyn Mobilization for Political Action, Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (chairman), Beta Phi Mu.
Selected awards: Award from Black Foundation for Research and Education in Sickle Cell Disease, 1973; award from Federation of Negro Civil Servants, 1973; September 10, 1971, declared Major Owens Day in Brooklyn; honorary degree from Atlanta University, 1986; American Library Association’s FLRT Achievement Award, 1990.
Addresses: Office —U.S. House of Representative, 114 Cannon House Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20515; or 289 Utica Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11213.
Information Science; and in 1979 was the keynote speaker for the first White House Conference on Libraries.
The library community returned his support. At the American Library Association’s (ALA) 1982 annual conference, a group called Concerned Citizens for Major Owens raised $5,000 for his congressional campaign. Later that year, their efforts were rewarded when Owens was elected to Congress as the representative from New York’s 12th District.
As a freshman congressman, Major Owens immediately began to work for the cause of education. He joined the Committee on Education and Labor, and its subcommittees on Employment Opportunities, Human Resources, Labor Standards and Postsecondary Education. Soon, he became the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, as well as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Higher Education Braintrust. Owens advocated domestic education spending over foreign military budgets, especially after the end of the cold war. “We need our fair share of this peace dividend,” he told Black Issues in Higher Education, “in particular to rehabilitate crumbling and dilapidated inner-city schools, and to guarantee a first-rate education for urban youths”
Spokesman for Libraries
His interest and support of libraries continued, not only because of his own academic background, but because of his fundamental belief in the importance of education and the power libraries should play in the education of their communities. As a chief librarian in the Brooklyn libraries, he saw an intimate link between education and economic success and became involved in local civil rights, housing, and antipoverty programs. As chair of the CBC Higher Education Braintrust, he fought hard to increase educational funding. “Education is the kingpin issue,” he wrote in an editorial published in Black Issues in Higher Education. “Proper nurturing of and attention to the educational process will achieve a positive domino reaction which will benefit employment and economic development.…The greater the education, the lesser the victimization by drugs, alcoholism and swindles.…We have to believe that all power and progress really begins with education.”
In his 1985 keynote address to the California Conference on Networking, Owens advocated the “[building of] solidarity among librarians” to obtain “political presence.” “Political Presence,” he explained in Library Journal, “means having the staff and the capability to write legislation and deliver it to sympathetic lawmakers…determining those issues that belong to your group and never yielding philosophical ground.”
Frustrated by Conservative Administration
Owens, a liberal Democrat, began his career in the House during the conservative administrations of U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Still, he found some success sponsoring legislation. In 1987, he worked out a compromise with the Republican opposition that allowed for swift passage of HR100, the authorization of money for child protection policies; in 1991, his bill for reauthorization of the same funds passed as well.
But Owens eventually became weary of fighting the conservative administration. He told the New York Times in 1990, “I feel the frustration after seven years in a Congress where no funds can be found for job creation or education to benefit my constituents. I sit there unable to do anything about it.” He relieved his frustration by writing rap-song poetry. One example, printed in the New York Times, reflected his bitterness over the budget battles. It begins “At the big white D.C. mansion / There’s a meeting of the mob / And the question on the table / Is which beggars will they rob…” After Democrat Bill Clinton became president, Owens aimed his barbs at the congressional representatives who opposed Clinton’s spending package in favor of a higher Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) budget, calling them, as quoted in Emerge, “Budget Committee wimps / Bowing to burned-out / Military pimps.”
Owens has also been plagued by unfortunate personal scandals. After winning his first congressional election, his opponent charged fraud and ballot stuffing. However, the New York State Supreme Court found no evidence that Owens was guilty of any misconduct, so the election results held. Five years later, the congressman became involved in a sticky lawsuit brought by his ex-wife, who is white: two years after their divorce was finalized in 1985, Ethel Owens charged her former husband with racism and failure to pay alimony, claiming that he divorced her because he thought having a white wife would hurt him politically. Owens countered that the alimony payments were a financial hardship and that her allegations of racism were unfounded.
Re-elected in 1992
After the 1990 census and the subsequent redistricting that occurred in New York City, Owens’s political territory changed considerably. In 1992 he ran for Congress in the 11th district rather than the 12th. Fearing that the restructuring would hurt his chances of re-election, 50 prominent librarians held a fund-raiser at the ALA meeting in San Francisco. Nearly 200 librarians turned out to support Owens, raising $4,255 for his campaign. With their support, he won the 1992 election, and was therefore able to continue his efforts on the behalf of librarians, educators, and his constituents. By 1993, the New York City school system had become Owens’s prime legislative target: he proposed that a new federal agency be created to assist the city’s school districts in battling mismanagement.
“The Academic Library and Education for Leadership,” in Libraries and the Search for Academic Excellence, edited by Patricia Senn Breivik and Robert Wedgworth, Scarecrow Press, 1988, pp. 13-24.
“Toward an Information Literate Society: The Challenge for Librarians,” in Information Literacy, edited by Jana Varlejs, McFarland & Co., 1991, pp. 48-57.
“The Voice of the Librarian Must Be Heard,” in Educating Black Librarians, edited by Benjamin F. Speller, Jr., McFarland & Co., 1991, pp. 61-67.
“The War on Poverty and Community Outreach,” in Activism in American Librarianship, 1962-1973, edited by Mary Lee Bundy and Frederick J. Stielow, Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 73-82.
Ragsdale, Bruce A., and Joel D. Tresse, Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1989, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990, p. 109.
World Almanac of U.S. Politics, World Almanac, 1989, p. 274.
ALA Yearbook, volume 13, 1988, p. 75.
American Libraries, February 1976, p. 100; November 1977, p. 529; December 1982, p. 671; July/August 1992, p. 564.
Black Issues in Higher Education, June 22, 1989, p. 48; February 15, 1990, p. 10.
Boston Globe, July 31, 1990, p. 4. Ebony, February 1983, p. 36.
Emerge, June 1993, p. 17.
Harper’s, August 1990, p. 21.
Jet, November 2, 1987, p. 16, 49; May 27, 1991, p. 34.
Library Journal, November 15, 1985; February 15, 1990, p. 160; August 1992, p. 24; November 1, 1992, p. 41.
New York Times, March 9, 1993, p. B3; March 23, 1993, p. A22; July 5, 1993, p. A25.
Wall Street Journal, June 11, 1990, p. B1.
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