Owens died Monday night at NYU Langone Medical Center of renal failure and heart failure, his son Chris Owens said. Owens represented a south Brooklyn congressional district from 1983 to 2007.
“Today, our country mourns the loss of a devoted public servant who dedicated his life to lifting up the voices of those who too often go unheard,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “From the classroom to the halls of Congress, Congressman Owens taught all of us what it means to serve with strength, compassion, and commitment to the public good.”
Born in Collierville, Tenn., Owens moved to Brooklyn where he worked as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library before entering politics. In the 1960s, he worked on anti-poverty programs in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, and he was elected to the state Senate in 1974.
He was elected to the U.S. House in 1982, succeeding Shirley Chisholm, who retired. Owens’ diverse Brooklyn district included heavily Caribbean-American neighborhoods, upscale Park Slope and a large Orthodox Jewish area in Crown Heights and Flatbush.
Owens was a disappointment among Jewish groups in his district. While he catered to his largely African American constituency, he rarely delivered on requests from Jewish askanim.
“We did not have a representative in Congress for 20 odd years,” one askan said, on condition of anonymity.
Asked to assess his own legacy at a 2006 retirement party, Owens said he was most proud of an amendment to secure funding for 107 historically black colleges. He also said, “I spent my time and energy organizing people. I certainly didn’t do it by raising money. Fundraising was my greatest failure.”