Major Owens, Longtime Congressman From Brooklyn, Is Dead at 77

Owens succeeded Shirley Chisholm in Congress and made working families a focus of his work.

Posted: 10/22/2013 12:19 PM EDT

Major R. Owens, the longtime congressman from Brooklyn who was a champion of issues related to working families, died Monday at age 77.

Owens, a Democrat who succeeded Shirley Chisholm in Congress, represented central Brooklyn in the House of Representatives from 1983 until 2007. He is best known for the role he played in helping to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Owens worked as a poverty fighter in the 1960s working under New York City mayor John V. Lindsay. He was the head of the city’s Community Development Agency. After that, he served as a member of the New York State Senate before being elected to Congress in 1982.

A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Owens distinguished himself by successfully sponsoring and passing more legislation than any other member of New York City’s Congressional delegation since Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education and Civil Rights, Owens directly sponsored and managed the passage of legislation on child abuse prevention and television decoding for the hearing impaired. He authored legislation that aided historically and predominantly black colleges and the landmark American Disabilities Act, which bars discrimination against people with disabilities in employment and other areas.

At home in Brooklyn, he was widely seen as a tireless organizer. As president of the Brooklyn-based Coalition for Community Empowerment, he provided leadership on the revision of New York’s City Charter and campaigned for a special prosecutor for racial bias and brutality cases.

“It is with a great sense of sadness that I learned last evening of the passing of my esteemed predecessor,” said Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, who succeeded Owens in the House of Representatives. “His example of public service will remain an inspiration to this generation and to future generations of elected officials here in Brooklyn and around this nation.”

Most recently, Owens was a senior fellow at the DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy, a think tank house at Medgar Evers College, where he was also a professor. He also was the author of the book, The Peacock Elite: A Case Study of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Owens is survived by his wife, Maria Owens, and five children, including Chris Owens, a community activist in Brooklyn, and Geoffrey Owens, an actor best remembered for his role as Elvin Tibideaux in the NBC sitcom The Cosby Show.

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 (Photo: Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)

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