Brooklyn’s “Own Black Shining Prince”: Congressman Major Owens – 1936-2013

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[Tribute To A Leading Educator]

Ossie Davis honored the memory of fallen Malcolm X in these revered words: “Our Own Black Shining Prince.” Likewise, the selfless and courageous public service of Congressman Major R. Owens claims a similar accolade.  He died on Monday, October 21, but throughout the course of his storied career, he lived one guiding life principle: “Your life does not belong to you alone.” His academic and professional achievements affirmed that selfless service most proudly. Not only was Major Owens Medgar’s “Black Shining Prince,” he was Brooklyn’s also.

On the hallow grounds of Morehouse College, he discovered his passion for learning, and it never relented. In the fallow soil of Brooklyn, his distinguished academic training took root after earning a master’s degree in library science in 1957 from Atlanta University. As his professional career moved from height to height, it became the stuff of legends.

This man of the people, Congressman Owens, first served as a conscientious librarian in Brooklyn in the late 1950s, later assuming the post as executive director of Brownsville Community Council’s antipoverty program. In 1968 Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed him commissioner of the City’s Community Development Agency. From there, Major Owens launched his political career, serving as a Brooklyn state senator from 1975 until 1982. Shortly thereafter, he won the Democratic primary for Ms. Shirley Chisholm’s House seat and remained there until his retirement in 2006.

Upon retiring, Congressman Owens returned to his cherished Central Brooklyn community, for which he had dared to represent so valiantly in Congress, and to the College that he had helped to found. Professor Owens held the post of Distinguished Lecturer in the Public Administration department until his death.  All of his life, he had upheld his commitment to education as the passport to opportunity, the one great equalizer.

When he joined the Medgar Evers faculty, Professor Owens immediately became a fond member of the college community. There was no arms-length distance with him—whether you were faculty or student, his kind heart was gracious enough to give us all a hearing. Students gravitated to him. “His charisma was such that he made students believe in their own greatness,” as student Evangeline Byars extolled his virtues on October 28th at a College remembrance service. What an invaluable gift! Although he had sat with presidents, diplomats, and dignitaries, Congressman Owens never lost the common touch.

Besides the many prestigious titles he had accrued, Major Owens was an activist-scholar at heart. My first meeting with him found him quoting Shakespeare with that sly grin, for which he was renowned:  "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown". He was aware of the fact that I had been voted Faculty Senate chair amid the tumultuous changes that were being demanded at the College. Firsthand, many of us witnessed that Professor Owens’ passion for learning did not eclipse his indomitable activist spirit. More than once, he could be found with a bullhorn, stomping up and down the sidewalk of Medgar Evers to refresh the memory of a derelict administration of its moral and academic accountability to its college constituency.

Congressman Owens always had the education of the next generation on his mind. Without the discipline and exposure of education to broaden the minds of our youth, he knew that no race could succeed and realize its greatest God-given potential. He understood that intrinsically, because he knew how education had given him wings to fly high above his humble beginnings in a segregated society. Consequently, one can better understand his colorful but forceful legislative activism on Capitol Hill, which resulted in measures to improve educational services to high risk populations. For him, education was a human right, not a privilege to be enjoyed only by the powerful elite or the talented tenth of high society.

To my regret, I only got to experience a narrow slice of his life, but oh, what a hidden treasure of friendship I discovered. Here, at Medgar Evers College, we joined arms as colleagues in the struggle to challenge a disengaged and out-of-touch administration to return this College to its founding mission and to keep education in the reach of poor and working class youth, marginalized and underserved by an underfunded school system. I hope the many of us understand the toll that it took upon his health and life; but gladly he gave it. Congressman Owens was a public servant in the best of sense.

How I wish he were here today to give us the benefit of his wise counsel. For surely, he would advise any leadership that sacrifice without redemption leaves an institution vulnerable and in peril of repeating its past. Who will now take the torch and continue the risk-taking legacy that Congressman Owens embodied and left behind to make Medgar Evers College the institution it is poised to become for a 21st century community?

For now, we, the college community, bid him farewell, but we will never forget, Brooklyn’s own “Black Shining Prince.”

 

Dr. Sallie M. Cuffee is Faculty Senate Chair of Medgar Evers College

 

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