- Former congressman representing the 11th District of New York
- Member of Democratic Socialists of America
- Former member of the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus
- Said that Republican Congressional leaders were "practicing genocide with a smile" and were "worse than Hitler"
Major Owens was a Democratic Member of Congress who represented the 11th District of New York from 1983-2007. Located in Brooklyn, this district is nearly 60% African-American, 12% Hispanic, and 21% Caucasian.
Owens was born in Memphis, Tennessee in June 1936. He earned a B.A. from Morehouse College in 1956 and a Master of Library Science degree from Atlanta University in 1957. He then moved to New York City and worked as a librarian at Brooklyn Public Library from 1958-65.
During the 1960s, Owens became chair of the Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality. He served as a New York City Community Development Agency Commissioner from 1968-73. And from 1973-74 he was Director of the Community Media Library Program at Columbia University.
In 1974 Owens was elected to the New York State Senate and went on to serve there for eight years. When incumbent congresswoman Shirley Chisholm retired from the 11th Congressional District in 1982, Owens ran for her vacated seat and defeated her hand-picked successor. He was re-elected every two years thereafter, through his final campaign in 2006.
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Owens in 1997 participated in the annual DSA-sponsored Socialists Scholars Conference at the City University of New York. He belonged to both the Congressional Black Caucus (which he co-founded) and the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives. Americans for Democratic Action rated his voting record as 90-95 percent on the left side of legislation.
During his congressional career, Owens voted:
- against the development of a national missile defense system;
- against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001;
- against the post-9/11 anti-terrorism measure known as the Patriot Act;
- against allowing the U.S. government to use electronic surveillance to investigate suspected terrorist operatives;
- against an October 2002 joint resolution authorizing U.S. military action in Iraq;
- against the establishment of military commissions to try enemy combatants captured in the war on terror;
- in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq immediately and by a preordained date;
- against requiring hospitals to report (to the federal government) illegal aliens who receive emergency medical treatment;
- against the Real ID Act, which proposed to set minimal security requirements for state driver licenses and identification cards;
- against separate proposals calling for the construction of some 700 miles of fencing to prevent illegal immigration along America's southern border;
- against a proposal to grant state and local officials the authority to investigate, identify, and arrest illegal immigrants;
- against major tax cut proposals in September 1998, February 2000, March 2000, July 2000, May 2001, May 2003, October 2004, and May 2006;
- against separate welfare reform bills designed to move people off the welfare rolls and into paying jobs;
- in favor of prohibiting oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR);
- against a proposal to fund offshore oil exploration along the Outer Continental Shelf;
- against school vouchers in Washington, DC;
- against ending racial preferences in college admissions;
- against banning the procedure commonly known as partial-birth abortion; and
- against imposing additional criminal penalties for harming a fetus during the commission of a crime against a pregnant woman. (The abortion-rights group NARAL gave Owens’ voting record a 100 percent rating).
Shortly after Republican leaders had become the governing majority in the House of Representatives in 1995, Owens said of them: "These are people who are practicing genocide with a smile. They're worse than Hitler."
Also in the mid-1990s, Owens made headlines when he said, on the House floor, that during the trans-Atlantic slave trade some 200 million African slaves bound for America had been thrown overboard by their white captors. This, he explained, had permanently changed the ecology of the Atlantic Ocean and had caused sharks, as a species, to begin following ships (in search of food).
Owens retired from his House of Representatives seat at the end of his term in January 2007.