An unapologetic activist, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., left his mark on Congress during his 12 terms in the House of Representatives. Viewed by his Harlem constituents as a dedicated crusader for civil rights, Powell earned the loyalty and respect of many African Americans with his confrontational approach to racial discrimination. Never one to shun the spotlight, the outspoken New York minister and politician—regarded as an irritant by many of his congressional colleagues—relished his position as a spokesperson for the advancement of African–American rights. Although Powell fought tirelessly on behalf of minorities, his legal problems and unpredictable behavior eventually undermined his influential but controversial political career. “Keep the faith, baby; spread it gently and walk together, children,” was a legendary slogan of the charismatic and flamboyant Representative.1
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on November 29, 1908. At the age of six months he moved to New York City with his older sister Blanche and his parents, Mattie Fletcher Schaffer and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., a Baptist preacher. The family relocated to New York when Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was assigned to serve as a minister at the century–old Abyssinian Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan. Under his leadership, the congregation grew into one of the largest in the United States. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., oversaw the move of the church and his family during the black migration to Harlem in the 1920s.2
After graduating from Townsend Harris High School in New York (also attended by Powell’s future African–American House colleague Robert N. C. Nix of Pennsylvania), Powell enrolled in the City College of New York. In 1926 he transferred to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. As an undergraduate, he often circumvented the socially accepted racial barriers of the period because his light skin allowed him to pass as a white student.3 A year after graduating from Colgate in 1930, Powell earned an M.A. in religious education from Columbia University. Though his choice to enter the ministry pleased his father, his decision to marry Isabel Washington—a recently separated Catholic actress—in 1933 did not. Powell later adopted Washington’s son Preston from her previous marriage.4 After divorcing his first wife, the future Representative married two more times: Hazel Scott in 1945 and Yvette Flores in 1960. Both marriages ended in divorce, too, and Powell had one son with each wife; both sons were Powell’s namesake.5
Powell used his position as assistant minister and business manager of the Abyssinian Church to press for change in the predominantly African–American community. In 1930, he organized picket lines and mass meetings to demand reforms at Harlem Hospital, which had dismissed five doctors because they were black. Beginning in 1932, he administered a church–sponsored relief program that provided food, clothing, and temporary jobs for thousands of Harlem’s homeless and unemployed. During the Great Depression, Powell established himself as a charismatic and commanding civil rights leader, directing mass meetings, rent strikes, and public campaigns that forced employers including restaurants, utilities, Harlem Hospital, and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City to hire or promote black workers. Powell’s early social activism earned him the steadfast support of Harlem residents and helped lay the foundation for his future political career.6
In 1937, Powell succeeded his father as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. A popular community leader, he decided to enter the local political scene. After earning the endorsement of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the 33–year–old Powell easily won a seat on the New York City council in 1941.7 During World War II, Powell maintained his attacks on racial discrimination in the military and on the domestic front. Airing his views on racism through speaking engagements and columns in ThePeople’s Voice, a weekly newspaper he published and edited from 1941 to 1945, the feisty politician attracted national attention. Powell gained additional political experience during the war years by serving on the New York State Office of Price Administration. The creation in 1942 of a new U.S. congressional district that encompassed much of Harlem, along with name recognition and political skill, positioned Powell for a strong bid for a vacant House seat in 1944.8
Running on a platform that focused on the advancement of African–American rights through the promotion of fair employment practices and a ban on poll taxes and lynching, Powell received support from two of New York City’s most influential organizations, the Abyssinian Church and the local Democratic machine, Tammany Hall. Asked to expand upon his political goals, Powell promised to “represent the Negro people first and after that all the other American people.” However, he later said he would represent the people of his Harlem district “irrespective of race, creed, or political affiliation.”9 Despite Powell’s overwhelming popularity among Harlem’s black voters (approximately 90 percent of the district), his aggressive political style alienated some local leaders, causing a scramble by the Republican Party to locate a viable opponent in the upcoming election. Sara Speaks, a Harlem lawyer endorsed by the Republican Party, and Powell took advantage of state election laws allowing candidates to run in multiple party primaries. But Speaks proved no match for Powell, who won both the Democratic primary (82 to 18 percent) and the GOP primary (57 to 43 percent). Powell also received the American Labor Party designation, allowing him to run unopposed in the general election and subsequently to earn a spot in the 79th Congress (1945–1947).10 He was the first African–American Member to represent New York. Powell’s demand for racial equality and his uncompromising demeanor resonated with his Harlem constituents, whose support essentially guaranteed Powell a House seat for the majority of his career. Like many of his future African–American House colleagues, Powell parlayed his strong record of civil rights at the local level into a congressional career.
When Congress convened on January 3, 1945, William Dawson of Illinois, the only other black Member, escorted Powell into the House Chamber for his first day in office. Powell and Dawson remained the only African–American Representatives from 1945 to 1955.11 During his first term in Congress, Powell served on the Indian Affairs, Invalid Pensions, and Labor committees. In 1947, the Education Committee and the Labor Committee were merged, and Powell remained on the new panel for 11 terms, three of them as chairman. Powell was also a member of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs from 1955 until 1961.
Aware that Powell was an atypical freshman Representative because of his race and his independent nature, Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas encouraged him to wait before making any waves in Congress, and Powell’s reserved demeanor during his first month on the Hill surprised many reporters. Powell later said Democratic leaders had convinced him his “maiden speech in the House should be constructive and on as high a plane as possible.”12 After his initial reticence, Powell quickly recaptured the flair that made him such a dynamic public figure. During his first term, he introduced legislation to extend the civil rights of District of Columbia residents, to outlaw lynching and the poll tax, and to end discrimination in the armed forces, housing, employment, and transportation. He attached an anti–discrimination clause to so many pieces of legislation, the rider became known as the Powell Amendment. Initiallyconsidered a symbolic maneuver, his rider was included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.13 His commitment to prohibit federal funding to groups advocating unequal treatment of Black Americans earned him the epithet “Mr. Civil Rights” and infuriated some of his congressional colleagues.14 During a July 1955 meeting of the Education and Labor Committee, avowed segregationist and West Virginia Democrat Cleveland Bailey punched Powell in the jaw out of anger from what he perceived as Powell’s continued efforts to undermine the committee’s legislative efforts with his rider. The encounter, which drew national attention, apparently ended with a conciliatory handshake. Asked to comment on the skirmish, Powell said, “Cleve Bailey and I smoke cigars together, and are old friends.” He added, “We always will be.”15
Soon after his arrival in Washington, Powell challenged the informal regulations forbidding black Representatives from using Capitol facilities reserved for Members. Following the lead of Oscar De Priest, Powell often took black constituents to the whites–only House Restaurant and ordered his staff to eat there. Always looking for ways to advance racial equality, Powell also successfully campaigned to desegregate the press galleries.16 Powell’s aggressive stance on discrimination within Congress led to numerous confrontations with John E. Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi and one of the chamber’s most notorious segregationists. Even before Powell’s election to Congress, Rankin disparaged attempts to integrate the Capitol. “That gang of communistic Jews and Negroes … tried to storm the House Restaurant and went around here arm in arm with each other” was Rankin’s inflammatory response to a 1943 protest and characteristic of his stance on civil rights.17 When Rankin made known his intention to avoid sitting near an African–American Member, Powell responded to the slight by sitting close to the southern politician whenever possible.18 Also, Powell retorted, “I am happy that Rankin will not sit by me because that makes it mutual. The only people with whom he is qualified to sit are Hitler and Mussolini.”19 The two men did not confine their mutual dislike to seating arrangements. Powell spoke on the House Floor to condemn Rankin’s racial attack on Jewish journalist Walter Winchell. “Last week democracy was shamed by the uncalled for and unfounded condemnation of one of America’s great minorities.” Powell continued, “I am not a member of that great minority, but I will always oppose anyone who tries to besmirch any group because of race, creed or color. Let us give leadership to this nation in terms of racial and religious tolerance and stop petty bickering in this body.”20 Powell also denounced the racial slurs uttered in the House by Rankin and other southern Democrats, demanding an inquiry by the House Parliamentarian into the use of “disparaging terms” on the floor.21
In 1945, Powell looked to expose the prejudicial practices of the long–standing Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) after the organization refused to allow his second wife, Hazel Scott, a jazz pianist, to perform in Constitution Hall. Hopeful that First Lady Bess Truman’s reaction would be similar to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s when the DAR barred African–American Marian Anderson from singing in the concert hall, Powell became enraged when Mrs. Truman refused to intercede. His characterization of Bess Truman as the “last lady” of the land, in response to her decision to attend a previously scheduled DAR tea, instigated a lingering feud between President Harry S. Truman and the New York Democrat that resulted in Powell’s exile from the White House during Truman’s years in office.22 The disagreement also fueled a heated debate on the House Floor in which Representative Rankin alleged that Powell’s criticism of the situation had a communist origin.23
Powell spent considerable time drawing attention to the plight of poor Africans and Asians. In 1955, he attended the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, despite efforts by U.S. officials to dissuade him. Privately, State Department officials expressed concern that Powell’s presence at Bandung was “bad” and might be construed as a sign of tacit U.S. approval for a discussion among nations that, for the most part, wished to remain neutral in the Cold War conflict between the Americans and the Soviets.24 While observing the meeting of newly independent African and Asian nations, Powell was confronted by communist reporters who asked about the appalling conditions faced by African Americans. Acknowledging the existence of discrimination in the United States, Powell pointed to himself as an example of improved circumstances for minorities. Upon his return, he urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower and other American policymakers to stand firm against colonialism and to pay greater attention to the emerging Third World.25 To keep the issue in the public eye, Powell made speeches on the House Floor that celebrated the anniversaries of the independence of nations such as Ghana, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone.26
During much of his tenure in Congress, Powell occupied the public spotlight. Known as a political maverick, he received national attention when he broke ranks with the Democratic Party to endorse President Eisenhower’s re–election bid in 1956. Powell threw his support behind the Eisenhower administration because he was dissatisfied with the Democratic nominee for President, Adlai Stevenson, and his choice for Vice President, Alabama Senator John Sparkman.27 Southern Democrats sought to retaliate against Powell, calling for Democratic leaders to strip him of his seniority. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People rose to Powell’s defense, persuading Speaker Sam Rayburn and liberal Emanuel Celler—dean of the New York delegation and chairman of the Judiciary Committee—not to take punitive action. Nevertheless, Powell’s House enemies prevailed in an effort to fire two of Powell’s patronage appointees. Of greater consequence, Education and Labor Committee Chairman Graham Barden of North Carolina, a fervent segregationist, denied Powell one of the five subcommittee chairmanships, even though Powell was the third–ranking Democrat on the full committee.28
In the late 1950s, Powell began to make headlines outside the political realm. He was indicted for income tax evasion by a federal grand jury in 1958, and the federal government continued to investigate his finances, even though the well publicized 1960 trial ended with a hung jury.29 The immediate political fallout from the indictment and trial proved negligible. Tammany Hall withdrew its support for Powell in the 1958 Democratic primary—a decision machine leaders claimed stemmed from the New York Representative’s support for Eisenhower, not his legal problems—and backed black candidate Earl Brown, a Harlem city councilman. Powell easily captured the nomination for his Harlem district, even with Tammany’s defection.30
The New York Representative was also criticized for taking numerous trips abroad at public expense, payroll discrepancies, and a high level of absenteeism for House votes. Asked to justify his erratic attendance record on the Hill, Powell replied, “You don’t have to be there if you know which calls to make, which buttons to push, which favors to call in.”31 For most of his career, Powell remained relatively unscathed by the public attention he incurred from such lapses. Instead of retreating from the limelight, he used the publicity to his advantage. By refusing to alter his defiant behavior, Powell earned the respect of many African Americans who viewed his actions as bold and rebellious. “Arrogant, but with style,” a characterization Powell relished, aptly described the politician who captivated his constituents throughout his career.32
When Representative Barden retired after the 86th Congress (1959–1961), Powell, next in seniority, assumed the chairmanship of the Committee on Education and Labor, a position he held for three terms until January 1967. Powell’s service as chairman marked the most productive period of his congressional career. The committee approved more than 50 measures authorizing federal programs for increases in the minimum wage, education and training for the deaf, school lunches, vocational training, student loans, and standards for wages and work hours as well as aid for elementary and secondary schools and public libraries. “We have been a more productive committee in the last year and a half than the New Deal,” a committee member noted in 1965. “You talk about Roosevelt’s one hundred days—what the hell, look at what we’ve done. It’s been under Powell’s chairmanship and you’ve got to give him credit for that.”33 The legislation introduced by Powell’s committee helped shape much of the social policy of the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations. A personal supporter of President Kennedy and, especially, President Johnson (Powell once claimed Johnson was “the only man who could bridge the bleeding gap between the North and the South”), Powell benefited from the agendas of both Presidents.34
By the mid–1960s, however, Powell was being criticized not only by longtime enemies but also by committee members dismayed by his irregular management of the committee budget. Those who often interacted with Powell as a committee chairman noted his “erratic” work style, his “quixotic unpredictability,” and his frequent absences.35His highly publicized jet–setting lifestyle elicited such judgments and raised serious concerns about his effectiveness as a committee leader. Powell’s refusal to pay a 1963 slander judgment to New Yorker Esther James, who Powell alleged served as a “bag woman,” transporting money from gamblers to corrupt police officers, further irked his colleagues. The public case, which lasted several years, led to Powell’s self–imposed exile from his district. To avoid arrest, Powell made brief weekend appearances in Harlem since state law prohibited serving civil contempt warrants on Sundays.36 Powell’s biographer Charles V. Hamilton observed that the Harlem Representative miscalculated the toll of such actions on his House career. Powell often viewed his attainment of important positions within an indifferent, often unfriendly, institution as proof of the potential of the powerless multitudes. And while clearly his achievements provided a beacon of hope to millions of Black Americans, his personal foibles left him vulnerable and oddly impassive to obvious consequences. “If the political system could for so long oppress and permit the subjugation of a whole people,” Hamilton wrote, “then why would [Powell] expect, as a spokesman for that people, to be accorded any better treatment?”37
Weary of Powell’s legal problems and his unpredictable antics, the House Democratic Caucus stripped the New York Representative of his committee chairmanship on January 9, 1967. The full House refused to seat him until the Judiciary Committee completed an investigation. The following month, the committee recommended that Powell be censured, fined, and deprived of seniority, but on March 1, 1967, the House rejected these proposals and voted—307 to 116—to exclude him from the 90th Congress (1967–1969). Unimpressed by the House’s mandate to ban their Representative, Harlem’s voters sent Congress a resounding message during the special election to fill Powell’s seat on April 11, 1967. Powell received 86 percent of the vote but refused to take his seat and spent most of the term on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. After he was re–elected to a 12th term in November 1968, the House voted to deny Powell his seniority and to fine him for misusing payroll and travel finances.
The Supreme Court helped vindicate Powell with its June 1969 ruling that the House acted unconstitutionally by excluding him from the 90th Congress. “From now on, America will know the Supreme Court is the place where you can get justice,” Powell declared.38 Despite the legal absolution, Powell never regained his former influence or authority in Congress. Still confident he would earn another term in the House, Powell entered the Democratic primary in 1970. Although Powell said, “My people would elect me … even if I had to be propped up in my casket,” some of his constituents had grown tired of his legal troubles, negative publicity, and infrequent attendance in Congress.39 His strongest opponent in the primary, Harlem–based New York State Assemblyman Charles Rangel, highlighted Powell’s absenteeism, using campaign literature marking the major votes he had missed.40 Even in the face of a formidable primary challenge, Powell adhered to his characteristic laidback campaigning, making few public appearances. Benefiting from redistricting that diluted Powell’s base of power in Harlem by adding to the district a slice of the mostly white Upper West Side, Rangel edged out the controversial Member in the primary by approximately 200 votes to become the Democratic candidate and the eventual Representative for his district.41 Consistent with his determined nature, Powell contested the election results, but although the recount reduced the margin of victory from 203 to 150 votes, Rangel still prevailed.42
Diagnosed with cancer in 1969, Powell declined rapidly after he left Congress. He retired as minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1971 and spent his waning days in Bimini. He died on April 4, 1972, in Miami, Florida.43 Once asked to describe his political career, Powell said, “As a member of Congress, I have done nothing more than any other member and, by the grace of God, I intend to do not one bit less.”44
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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