Ossie Davis honored the memory of the fallen Malcolm X with these revered words: “Our own Black shining prince.” Rep. Major R. Owens, for his selfless and courageous public service, deserves a similar accolade. He died on Monday, Oct. 21, but throughout the course of his storied career, he lived according to one guiding life principle: “Your life does not belong to you alone.” His academic and professional achievements affirmed that selfless belief. Not only was Owens Medgar Evers College’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 he earned 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 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, Owens launched his political career, serving as a Brooklyn state senator from 1975 until 1982. Shortly thereafter, he won the Democratic primary for Shirley Chisholm’s House seat and remained there until his retirement in 2006.
Upon retiring, 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. Owens held the post of distinguished lecturer in the Department of Public Administration 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, 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 everyone a hearing. Students gravitated to him. “His charisma was such that he made students believe in their own greatness,” said student Evangeline Byars as she extolled his virtues on Oct. 28 at a college remembrance service. What an invaluable gift! Although he had sat with presidents, diplomats and dignitaries, Owens never lost the common touch.
Besides the many prestigious titles he had accrued, Owens was an activist-scholar at heart. During my first meeting with him, he was quoting Shakespeare with that sly grin for which he was renowned. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” he said. 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. Many of us witnessed that 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 remind a derelict administration of its moral and academic accountability to their college constituency.
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 education 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 who were marginalized and underserved by an underfunded school system. I hope that many of us understand the toll that it took upon his health and life, but he gladly sacrificed it anway. 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. He would surely 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 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 Brooklyn’s own Black shining prince will never be forgotten.