Powell, Adam Clayton Jr. 1908–1972

views updated Jun 11 2018

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. 19081972

Congressman, activist, minister

At a Glance

Political Writer and Organizer

City Council a Stepping Stone to Congress

Civil Rights Irritant

Tax Probe and Other Troubles

Fought to Retain Position

Selected writings


Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was one of the earliest and loudest black voices in the American civil rights movement. After spending several years agitating in his capacity as minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, he went on to serve on the city council and then to become the first black congressman from the northeastern United States. His flamboyant speaking style and uncompromising calls for justice fueled the civil rights movement when it had few political advocates inside the government. His equally extravagant lifestyle and brash nature, however, ultimately compromised his effectiveness and destroyed his political career.

Powell was born on November 29, 1908, in New Haven, Connecticut. His family descended from a long line of Virginia tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and domestic servants. His father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was a minister at Immanuel Baptist Church in New Haven at the time of Adams birth. When the reverend got the chance to pastor Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, an old and esteemed congregation in Harlem, the family moved there and inhabited a large house. Charles Hamilton, author of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma, referred to Powells childhood environment as a rather comfortable black middle-class home and noted that the boy was pampered by his family. After recovering from a lung ailment that plagued him for six years of his life, Powell spent his early manhood discovering the rewards of being so light-skinned that he could pass for white. He had an active social life at the City College of New York and developed, according to Hamilton, a pattern he would follow until his death: He spent more time indulging in his pleasures than developing his intellectual abilities.

Powells beloved older sister, Blanche, died of a ruptured appendix during Adams first year in college, and this tragedy caused him to return to live at home. His attitude was, in Hamiltons words, carefree and reckless; he flunked out of college and worked odd jobs, still enjoying the night life of the celebrated Harlem Renaissance of the 1920san era during which black culture thrived in Harlem. A family friend persuaded the Powells that Adam might be better off at Colgate University in upstate New York, where the schools president was a friend of Powells father and promised to watch out for the boy. Powells race was kept secret for a while, until he tried to join an all-white

At a Glance

Born November 29, 1908, in New Haven, CT; died April 4, 1972, in Miami, FL; son of Adam Clayton (a minister) and Mattie (Fletcher) Powell; married Isabel Washington (an actress), March 8, 1933 (divorced, 1944); married Hazel Scott (a pianist), August, 1945 (divorced, 1960); married Yvette Diago (a secretary), 1960 (divorced, 1965); children: (first marriage; adopted) Preston; (second marriage) Adam Clayton III; (third marriage) Adam Diago. Education: Attended City College of New York; graduated from Colgate University, 1930; attended Union Theological Seminary; Columbia University, M.A., 1932. Religion: Baptist.

Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York City, manager and assistant pastor, 1930-36, pastor, 1937-71; newspaper columnist, 1935-42; New York City Councilman, 1941-45; founder and editor-in-chief, Peoples Voice, 1942; U.S. Congressman, 1945-67 and 1969-70; chair of House Committee on Education and Labor, 1961-67; writer; lecturer. Delegate to Parliamentary World Conference, London, England, 1951-52, and to the International Labor Organization (ILO) Conference, Geneva, Switzerland, 1961.

Awards: Honorary degrees from Shaw University, 1938 and Virginia Union University, 1947; award from American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientists and Dorie Miller and Meyer Levin Award, both 1943; Knight of the Golden Cross, Ethiopia, 1954, for relief work.

fraternity that checked his family records. Finding himself ostracized by both black and white students at Colgate, he eventually joined a black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, in New York City.

Powell frequently traveled from Colgate to the city, turning a profit by smuggling liquor onto campus. He also worked summers as a bellboy, benefitting from his light skin. On one of his trips to New York City, Powell met actress Isabel Washington, and the two fell in love. She was separated and had a son, and Powells family strongly disapproved of the relationship. At the same time, young Powell pleased his parents by agreeing to become a minister. Upon his graduation in 1930, his parents paid for his trip to Europe and the Middle East, instructing him not to contact Isabel while he was away. He disobeyed.

Political Writer and Organizer

When he returned from his trip, Powell enrolled as a part-time student at Union Theological Seminary, was made business manager of Abyssinian, and kept up his riotous social life. In 1932 he received an master of arts degree from Columbia University and made his first foray into politics when the New York Post asked him to write articles commenting on the Harlem riots of 1935. His essays attacked social and economic discrimination and police brutality. His themeone that would pervade his entire political careerwas the disparity between the ideals of American democracy and the reality of American life. Soon he was penning a regular column titled Soap Box for Harlems Amsterdam.

Isabela Catholicagreed to be baptized by Powells father, and she and the younger Powell were married in 1933. Powell subsequently became her son Prestons adoptive father. Powell had dropped out of Union Seminary in 1930, but when his father retired in 1937 he took over Abyssinian. There was some controversy about the younger pastors more politically confrontational stance; Powell had become involved in several movements to reverse discriminatory hiring practices and used the pulpit as a forum for his commentary on various political and social issues. Constantly fighting for the cause of black employment, Powell helped to form the Greater New York Coordinating Committee (GNYCC) for Employment, which acted as an umbrella for several activist organizations.

Powells early political work involved building and maintaining coalitions between several volatile factions, including Communists and Black Nationalists. His own rhetoricfocusing on the need for worker solidarity and economic justiceoften echoed that of the Communist party. Still, with the 1939 nonaggression pact between former Soviet leader Josef Stalin and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, Powell declared that American Communism is just about finished. This outlook didnt affect his activism on behalf of workers, however, and in 1939 GNYCC picketed discriminatory hiring practices at the Worlds Fair. The organization also took part in a coalition called the United Negro Bus Strike Committee (UNBSC), the efforts of which resulted, in 1942, in the establishment of a quota system andfor the first timethe hiring of black bus drivers in New York City.

City Council a Stepping Stone to Congress

Powell relished being in the public eye. He enjoyed rousing crowds with his oratory and liked being a leader in the struggle. He decided to run for New York City Council in 1941. Isabel didnt like the idea, and there were other tensions in the marriageincluding Powells obvious romantic interest in jazz pianist Hazel Scottbut the flamboyant minister would not be deterred. He reformed GNYCC as the Peoples Committee to handle his campaign, gained the endorsement of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and in November, at the age of 33, won his place at city hall. He dedicated himself to attacking hiring discrimination, particularly at colleges, and though he won some victories, he faced resistance from LaGuardia and other institutional powers.

In 1942 Powell cofounded a newspaper, the Peoples Voice, continuing his Soap Box column in the new publication and acting as editor-in-chief. When a reapportionment battle led to the establishment of a 22nd congressional district in Harlem, Powell decided to run for national office. In 1943 he addressed an enthusiastic crowd at a Madison Square Garden meeting of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the following year he received the endorsement of Tammany Hall, the site of the New York Democratic political machine. Gathering other honors on his way to Congress, Powell won an award from the American Committee of Jewish Writers, Artists and Scientistschaired by famed physicist Albert Einsteinand the Dorie Miller and Meyer Levin Award for his efforts to improve relations between blacks and Jews.

Powells campaign platform emphasized fair employment, the abolition of poll taxes, and making lynching a federal crime. He received the Democratic nomination in the 1944 primary and, unopposed in the general election, went on to win in November. Between the primary and the election he worked on his first book, Marching Blacks. That same year his wife, Isabel, filed a lawsuit for separate maintenance. Powell was clearly involved with Hazel Scott, whom he married in 1945 after divorcing Isabel.

Civil Rights Irritant

With the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, Vice-President Harry Truman became his successor. Powell got in a tiff with Truman over First Lady Tess Trumans attending a Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) tea. Apparently the DAR owned Constitution Hall, which banned black performers, including Hazel Scott. The Harlem congressman was never invited to the White House during the Truman administration. Meanwhile, however, Powell had become what Hamilton termed the quintessential irritant within congress, challenging segregationists who used the word nigger on the house floor and attempting to pass anti-segregation legislation.

Powell, however, was virtually alone in the government at the timethe only other black congressman was Chicagos William Dawsonand his role was largely symbolic for a time. Earning the moniker Mr. Civil Rights, Powell would often attempt unsuccessfully to pass the so-called Powell Amendment, which would deny federal funds to schools practicing segregation. Even so, his was the first loud black voice in Congress, and his willingness to confront racism in the government provided a moral boost to black voters nationwide. He wasnt seriously challenged for his seat for more than 20 years.

In 1946 Powell left the Peoples Voice. In December of that year Hazel gave birth to their son, Adam Clayton Powell III. As the Cold War intensified between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the FBIwhich had been investigating Powell since 1942 for his connections with antisegregationist and communist groupsbecame more and more an instrument for monitoring what they called internal communism. Powell found it prudent to break definitively with the Communists and in 1952 became delegate-at-large to the Democratic National Convention.

Powell was never particularly fond of the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and positively disapproved of Stevensons vice-presidential choice, southerner John Sparkman. When the Republican party won the election, Powell decided to sacrifice party loyalty to political expedience. Despite President Dwight Eisenhowers conservatism with respect to civil rights, Powell became his champion, attacking Congress rather than the president. This won him some political clout with the administration as well as some favors, including the arrangement of Ethiopian leader Haile Selassies visit to Abyssinian in 1954.

Powells support of Eisenhower meant a change in rhetoric, and the congressman used the anticommunist jargon of the time to declare segregation unAmerican. In 1955 West Virginia segregationist Cleveland Bailey punched Powell in the jaw on the House floor. Powell, with typical aplomb, downplayed the episode to the press, claiming that the two were actually good friends.

Powells next pro-Eisenhower coup was his attendance, along with an interracial delegate of observers, at the 1955 Pan-Asian and Pan-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. He downplayed racism in the United States to the press there, hoping to counter the claims of some Third World countries. Powell also attacked colonialism, a position that was less delightful to the administration. Even so, Powells trip was an astute move and increased his standing; he even received a citation from the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Obtaining an audience with Eisenhower, however, was another matter. Powell had tried to compliment an administration that really did little for civil rights, and he expected some rewards. He campaigned for Eisenhower in 1956, and this resulted in a feud with some Democrats who hoped to deprive Powell of his seniority. Meanwhile, frustrated by the governments lack of action on civil rights, Powell attacked the Eisenhower administration in a 1958 telegram that he leaked to the press.

According to Hamilton, Powells carefully constructed bridge with the Eisenhower people was broken. In May of 1958 a grand jury indicted Powell for tax fraud, culminating in an inquiry that had begun in 1953. Because of his troublesand perhaps for other reasonshe was banned from the first White House meeting with civil rights leaders. Even Martin Luther King, Jr., suggested excluding him. Powells absenteeism from Congress and what some called his egocentrism and arrogance increasingly frustrated his supporters.

Tax Probe and Other Troubles

Powell was still considered an irritant in Congress, but his implication in the tax fraud inquiry and other issues led Tammany Hall to try to purge Powell from the party in 1958. Harlem district leaders voted not to nominate him, and though he quickly won the endorsement of the Republican party in Harlem, he needed to return to Congress a Democrat or lose his seniority. He still had many supporters, among them King, who wrote Powell a letter that Hamilton quoted in his biography of Powell: For many years you have been a militant champion of justice, not only as a Congressman from Harlem, but necessarily as a spokesman for disenfranchised millions in the South. Ultimately Powell beat the purge and was re-elected as a Democrat.

Pleading not guilty to the tax evasion charges, Powell faced a trial that would begin in 1960; he also coped with the dissolution of his rocky marriage to Hazel Scott, from whom he was divorced in December of that year. After the jury dismissed two of the charges against Powell, it remained hung on the third charge. The government decided not to take up the case again, though, and Powell returned to the civil rights fight, this time with a new president.

Democrat John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon by a narrow margin in 1960 and was unable to garner the necessary support in Congress to pass much of his new legislation. Powell, meanwhile, was first in line for the position of chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor and was appointed in January of 1961. Frustrated by Kennedys patience with segregationists, whose votes the president needed, Powell nonetheless continued striving for fair employment practices and the abolition of segregation and discrimination. By most accounts he was at first a very responsible committee chair and delegated responsibility effectively. Intolerant of what he considered disrespect, though, he once reportedly fired an assistant who remained seated when Powell entered the room.

After Kennedys assassination in November of 1963, Powell made considerable inroads with the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. Unlike Kennedy, Johnson had more support in Congress and was able to pass a substantial body of progressive legislation, much of it with the help Powell. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964, Title 6 of which was, at long last, a version of the Powell Amendment. Powells committee helped Johnson extend the National Defense Education Act, a more diverse version of the one passed in 1958. By the mid-1960s, Powell was crowded off the stage of the civil rights movement by King and others. Because he wasnt ready to give up the political limelight, though, he began to appear with Malcolm X and other militants, attacking the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for having a partially white leadership andimportantly for Powellmaking headlines.

Meanwhile Powells alleged extramarital affairs, along with his paid vacations and a libel suit filed by a New York woman he accused of being a bag womana money carrier for organized crimeled to increased negative publicity for him. Claiming his activity was no different from any other member of Congress, he maintained that he was the victim of a racist double standard. In 1964 his absenteeism worsened considerably; it was, in Hamiltons words, a perennial point of vulnerability. He was reelected for his eleventh term, but Johnson actually got more votes in Harlem than Powell did.

Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the following year Powell introduced a bill to address de facto as opposed to legalsegregation in northern schools, legislation that rankled a lot of northerners. Meanwhile Powell was losing control of his committee. Former Congress of Racial Equality national director James Farmer, who sponsored a literacy program killed for unspecified reasons by Powell, accused the Harlem representative of being amoral. In addition, Powells lack of attendance at key votes angered the Johnson administration.

Beginning in 1963, Powell was attacked on the floor of Congress by Delaware Senator John J. Williams for his alleged personal misconduct and misuse of government funds. Powells behavior was the subject of much press coverage, though he consistently held that he was being singled out unfairly. His claims of police corruption in New York City didnt endear him to the power structure; in addition to the libel suit filed by the alleged bag woman Esther Jameswhich would drag on through appeals and countersuits for nearly a decadehe faced considerable suspicion for his claim that, if the numbers racket were to persist in Harlem, blacks should get a fair cut.

In 1967 a House subcommittee prepared to deliver the results of its probe into Powells handling of committee funds. Yvette Powell, the congressmans third wife, testified that she hadnt seen Powell for more than a year, though checks issued in her name had been cashed by her husband. Nevertheless she pleaded for leniency for him. The probe made several serious allegations, and as a result Powell was stripped of his chairmanship. Congress voted to exclude him by a vote of 307-116. Challenging the legality of his exclusion, Powell filed suit in federal district court and ultimately took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime a special vote was held to fill the vacant seat, but Powell announced his candidacy and won 86 percent of the vote. The Supreme Court agreed in 1968 to hear his case.

Fought to Retain Position

Powells rhetoric during 1968 became more militant, and many of his supporters saw the investigations and exclusion as attempts to silence an uppity black politician. Despite his political intensity during this period, though, his activities were overshadowed by the assassinations of King and President Kennedys brother Robert. Powell won the election in 1968, and the Supreme Court ruled his exclusion from Congress unconstitutional. His seniority was restored in 1969, the same year Esther James was paid the last of the outstanding libel damages.

Powell went on the lecture circuit and resumed regular preaching at Abyssinian, attending Congress infrequently. Becoming known as an ineffective legislator, he faced his first serious challenger, Harlem Assemblyman Charles Rangel. Though Powell claimed, My people would elect meeven if I had to be propped up in my casket, he lost to Rangel in an extremely narrow vote. Powell claimed election fraud, but his lawsuits produced no tangible results. He retired from the pastorate in 1971 and spent his remaining days at Bimini in the Bahamas. On April 4, 1972, complications from prostate surgery forced him to be flown to a Florida hospital, where he died that night. His funeral was held at Abyssinian, and was well attended. Hazel, Yvette, and the woman who claimed to be Powells common-law wife during his final yearsDarlene Expose Hineall attended, as did Powells two sons.

The congressional irritant remains a flamboyant, difficult, and proud figure in the history of black politics and the civil rights struggle. Hamilton described Powell as the epitome of independent politics; perhaps he will be remembered less for specific political achievements than for his reputation as a proud black man who answered every challenge defiantly. For much of his life, merely fulfilling this role made him an important national figure. Appropriately, among the monuments bearing his name in Harlemincluding what used to be Seventh Avenueis the tallest structure: the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., State Office Building.

Selected writings

Marching Blacks, An Interpretive History of the Rise of the Black Common Man, Dial, 1945.

The New Image in Education: A Prospectus for the Future by the Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962.

Keep the Faith, Baby!, Trident, 1967.

Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Dial, 1971.



Hamilton, Charles V., Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma, Atheneum, 1991.

Hickey, Neil and Ed Edwin, Adam Clayton Powell and the Politics of Race, Fleet Publishing, 1965.


Detroit Free Press, December 15, 1991.

Ebony, March 1990.

People, January 20, 1992.

Simon Glickman

Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr.

views updated May 23 2018

POWELL, Adam Clayton, Jr.

(b. 29 November 1908 in New Haven, Connecticut; d. 4 April 1972 in Miami, Florida), minister, politician, civil rights leader, and social activist who, through his leadership of strikes, picket lines, and civic demonstrations, and through legislation, improved employment conditions for African Americans.

Powell was the younger of two children born to Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., a Baptist pastor, and Mattie Fletcher (Shaffer) Powell. Soon after Powell's birth his father became the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in New York City. The church became the largest Protestant congregation in America, with nearly 15,000 members.

When Powell was six years old he contracted what was probably tuberculosis, and it took him more than six years to recover. During this period he became close to his sister Blanche, ten years his senior, who tended him. Powell graduated from Townsend Harris High School in 1925 at the age of sixteen. That year he attended the City College of New York (CCNY), partying more than studying and failing three courses. He was given another chance at the college in 1926, again failing.

In the winter of 1926 Powell's sister died of a burst appendix. The shock to him was such that he spent four years in a profound depression, what he called an "aching void." In 1926 he entered Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. In February 1930, while studying late, he had a religious revelation in which he felt he was "called" to the ministry. Powell graduated from Colgate in 1930 with a B.A., then attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City briefly before quitting over a dispute with the administration about his girlfriend, Isabel Washington, a nightclub dancer. He then attended the Teacher's College of Columbia University, receiving his M.A. in religion in 1932. On 8 March 1933 he married Washington and adopted her child from an earlier marriage; they divorced in 1945.

In 1936 his father retired as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and Powell was selected to replace him. Meanwhile he was awarded an honorary doctorate in divinity from Shaw University in 1938. During this period Powell campaigned for stores in Harlem to employ more African Americans, organizing picket lines and strikes to publicize this endeavor. On 23 September 1941 he entered the race for New York City Council, finishing third out of six candidates and earning a seat; he was the council's first African-American member. In 1944 the Harlem congressional district was gerrymandered to ensure the election of an African American; Powell, who had refused to be partisan as a council member, received the endorsement of both the Democratic and Republican parties and ran un-opposed in the November election.

The light-skinned Powell immediately made his presence felt in Congress by entering every whites-only establishment and insisting his African-American aides be allowed in also. He challenged segregated establishments throughout Washington, D.C., opening them up for non-whites. In August 1945 Powell married Hazel Scott, a professional jazz pianist; they had a son, Adam Clayton Powell III. During the 1940s and 1950s Powell persistently tried to add to bills a piece of legislation that became known as the Powell Amendment. This amendment forbade the disbursement of federal money to any organization or private enterprise that practiced racial discrimination. The conservative Democrats in Congress tended to thwart Powell's efforts, resulting in his occasionally threatening to jump to the Republican Party. In 1956 he endorsed President Dwight D. Eisenhower for reelection, forming a working relationship with the president's staff that helped result in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. During the 1950s he became known as "Mr. Civil Rights."

In 1960 Powell divorced Hazel Scott, then married his staff secretary, Yvette Marjorie Flores Diago of Puerto Rico; he hoped to make Puerto Rico a state. They had one son and separated in 1966. In 1960 Powell endorsed Lyndon B. Johnson for president during the presidential primary, but in 1961 he allied with President John F. Kennedy and his New Frontier policies. Seniority made him the chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and he proved himself an exceptional parliamentarian, wielding the powers of his office with skill. Between 1961 and 1967 the committee passed forty-eight important social bills, including a revised version of the Education Act of 1958, the Civil Rights Act of 1960, the Minimum Wage Bill of 1961, and the Manpower Development Act of 1962. Each bill included the Powell Amendment.

The assassination of Kennedy in 1963 appalled Powell, but he found in the new president, Johnson, a goal-oriented politician with whom he could work closely. When Johnson presented several major pieces of legislation that he wanted passed in only a few months, Powell drove his committee into relentless work. Powell's greatest triumph was passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI of which made the Powell Amendment the standard for all federal laws. Education bills, poverty relief bills, and other social legislation were driven through Powell's committee.

Even so, his brashness, his condescension toward colleagues, and his flirtations with the Republican Party made him powerful political enemies. In 1960, during a televised interview in which Powell named some people in New York who allegedly were involved in graft, he mentioned Esther James as a "bag woman"—that is, someone who took payoffs from gangsters and delivered them to the police. James sued for slander and, in spite of her long criminal record, she won. Powell ignored the judgment, then later appealed it, to no avail.

Powell had a long history of love affairs, often putting his wives and lovers on the congressional payroll. He and his staff often took vacations to exotic locales on taxpayer money. In January 1967 the Democratic leadership moved that Powell not be seated in the House of Representatives; a subsequent vote overwhelmingly denied him his seat. Powell was the first committee chair to be removed from the House in 160 years.

A special election was held in Harlem and Powell again won, without even campaigning. In June 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the House of Representatives acted unconstitutionally and ordered Powell to be seated. Even so, the House leadership stripped him of his seniority and fined him $25,000. In 1970 the Harlem congressional district was gerrymandered again so as to include areas of upper west Manhattan that were unfriendly to Powell, and he lost his reelection bid by just over two hundred votes.

Powell, living with his common-law wife, Darlene Expose Hine, since 1966, took up residence in Bimini in the Bahamas for tax purposes. He resigned the pastorate of Abyssinian Baptist Church in April 1971. Powell finished his autobiography, Adam on Adam (1971), the same year. He died at the age of sixty-three of complications from surgery for prostate cancer in Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. His body was flown to New York and viewed at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Powell was cremated and his ashes scattered over the waters on Bimini's coast.

Always hostile to Powell, the New York Times declared in an obituary that Powell "leaves no lasting heritage"—nonsense even in 1972. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 alone has reshaped the American workplace, fostered minority businesses, and increased minority employment. Without Powell's efforts, civil rights legislation of any type might have been another decade in coming.

There is no single archive of Powell's papers, but his book Keep the Faith, Baby! (1967) is a collection of his sermons and speeches. Powell's autobiography, Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1971), is the best resource for details about his family background and early life. Biographies include James Haskins, Adam Clayton Powell: Portrait of a Marching Black (1974); Robert Jakoubek, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1988); and Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (1991). Contemporary works on Powell include Claude Lewis, Adam Clayton Powell (1963); Neil Hickey and Ed Edwin, Adam Clayton Powell and the Politics of Race (1965); Gil and Ann Chapman, Adam Clayton Powell: Saint or Sinner? (1967); P. Allen Dionisopoulos, Rebellion, Racism, and Representation: The Adam Clayton Powell Case and Its Antecedents (1970); and Kent M. Weeks, Adam Clayton Powell and the Supreme Court (1971). Biographical information is also in Andy Jacobs, The Powell Affair: Freedom Minus One (1973), and E. Curtis Alexander, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: A Black Power Political Educator (1983). Wil Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1993), is written in an eloquent, vibrant style that suits its subject. Obituaries are in the New York Times (5 Apr. 1972), Washington Post (6 Apr. 1972), L'Express (10 Apr. 1972), and Time and Newsweek (both 17 Apr. 1972).

Kirk H. Beetz

Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr.

views updated May 29 2018


Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a prominent African American congressman, serving his district in New York City's Harlem neighborhood from 1945 to 1970. A flamboyant and often controversial political figure, Powell played a key role in passing many federal education and social welfare programs in the 1960s. Near the end of his tenure, however, Powell was embroiled with the House of Representatives over alleged ethical lapses.

Powell was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on November 29, 1908. When he was less than a year old, his father moved the family to New York City's Harlem neighborhood to accept the ministry at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The church, which was a hundred years old, expanded under the elder Powell's leadership, in time becoming one of the largest congregations in the United States.

Powell graduated from Colgate University in 1930 and received a master of arts degree in religious education from Columbia University in 1931. He served as assistant minister and business manager of the Abyssinian Church in 1930 and succeeded his father as minister in 1936. He remained minister of the church for thirty-five years.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Powell acted aggressively to address racial and social injustice in New York City. In 1930 he organized picket lines and mass meetings to demand reform of Harlem Hospital, which had fired five African American doctors because of their race. Powell also used the church as an instrument of social welfare, distributing food, clothing, and temporary jobs to thousands of Harlem's destitute residents.

Powell soon was recognized as a charismatic civil rights leader, adept at forcing restaurants, retail stores, bus companies, utilities, and phone companies either to hire or begin promoting African American employees. He transferred his efforts into the political arena in 1941, when he was elected as an independent to the New York City Council. During world war ii he worked for the New York State Office of Price Administration and the Manhattan Civilian Defense, as well as publishing a weekly newspaper, The People's Voice.

In 1944 he was elected as a Democrat to Congress, representing the Twenty-second (later Eighteenth) District. In 1947 he took a seat on the Education and Labor Committee, which was to become the base of his power and prestige. During the 1940s and 1950s, Powell challenged racial segregation in and out of the halls of Congress. He took black constituents to the House dining room that had been informally restricted to white representatives. He introduced legislation to outlaw lynching and to ban discrimination in the armed forces, housing, transportation, and employment. He became famous for attaching an antidiscrimination amendment to many pieces of legislation. The so-called Powell Amendment was always unsuccessful, but it was a way to raise the issue of racial inequality before a House that was generally hostile to Powell's stand on civil rights.

"These are the days for strong men to courageously expose wrong."
Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

His frustration at the Democratic Party's reluctance to move forward on civil rights led him in 1956 to endorse Republican President dwight d. eisenhower for a second term. New York City democratic party leaders were outraged at this act of disloyalty and waged a hard-fought campaign to defeat him in the 1958 primary election. Powell's loyal Harlem constituents rebuffed this effort.

In 1961 Powell became chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor. He proved to be an effective, if at times difficult, point man for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. More than fifty pieces of major legislation were passed out of Powell's committee, including the school lunch program, education and training for the deaf, student loan programs, vocational training, and minimum wage increases. Powell was instrumental in passing legislation to aid elementary and secondary education.

By 1966, however, Powell had alienated many House members because of his poor management of the committee budget, numerous and well-publicized government-funded trips abroad, and excessive absenteeism. These congressional problems were compounded by problems in his private life. Powell, despite being a minister, liked the high life. Married three times and attached to other women, he enjoyed his playboy image. Many members of Congress were shocked by this attitude.

More seriously, Powell had been charged with income tax evasion in 1958, but the trial ended in a hung jury. In 1960 he appeared on a New York City television show and lambasted police corruption. He had previously charged on the floor of the House that a constituent, Esther James, worked for organized crime in Harlem. Statements made on the House floor are covered by congressional immunity, and Powell knew he could not be sued for slander. On the television show he repeated his charge and labeled James a Mafia "bag woman."

James proceeded to sue Powell, setting in motion a chain of legal and political misfortunes for him. After James won her slander suit and obtained damages of $46,000, Powell refused to pay the judgment. He also ignored subpoenas to appear and explain his financial records. Finally the court issued two civil contempt arrest warrants for his recalcitrance.

After the warrants were issued, Powell would only return to his Harlem district to preach on Sundays, when it was illegal to serve a civil contempt warrant. The trial court then imposed a thirty-day jail sentence for failing to appear. On appeal, the New York state appellate court allowed Powell more time to comply with the subpoena but agreed with the trial court that Powell's jail sentence was not barred by congressional immunity (James v. Powell, 26 A.D. 2d 295, 274 N.Y.S. 2d 192 [1966]). Powell was not to settle the case with James until 1969.

The James episode and allegations of congressional misconduct led the House to strip

Powell of his committee chair in January 1967. In addition, the full House refused to seat him until the Judiciary Committee completed its investigation of his affairs. In February 1967 the committee recommended that Powell be censured, fined, and deprived of seniority. The full House disagreed, voting 307 to 116 to exclude him from Congress. Powell then ran in the special election to fill his vacant seat. When he won in April, he refused to take his seat. He ran again in the November 1968 election and was reelected. This time the House seated him but denied him his seniority. Powell refused to take his seat under this condition.

Following his exclusion in 1967, Powell filed a lawsuit against the House of Representatives, arguing that the House had no constitutional basis for excluding him. Typically federal courts do not entertain such lawsuits, because they deal with matters constitutionally delegated to the legislative branch. Although it appeared Powell's lawsuit was barred by the "political question" doctrine, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided that it could intervene. In Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 89 S. Ct. 1944, 23 L. Ed. 2d 491 (1969), the Court held that the House of Representatives could not exclude Powell, a duly elected member, who met all the constitutional qualifications of age, citizenship, and residence prescribed by the Constitution.

Powell took his House seat after the Supreme Court decision, but he lost his twenty-two years of seniority. His victory was short-lived. He lost in the June 1970 primary election and failed to get on the ballot as an independent. He retired as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1971 and died in Miami, Florida, on April 4, 1972.

further readings

Hamilton, Charles V. 1992. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma. New York: Collier Books.

Haskins, James. 1993. Adam Clayton Powell: Portrait of a Marching Black. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.

Haygood, Wil. 1993. King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. 1994. Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol.


Congress of the United States.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr

views updated May 29 2018

Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

The political leader and Harlem Baptist minister Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) was a pioneer in civil rights for black Americans.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born on November 29, 1908, in New Haven, Connecticut, moving with his parents at the age of six to Harlem, New York City. His father was a successful clergyman and a dabbler in real-estate. Adam was sent to Hamilton, New York, to Colgate University (1930, A.B.) and afterwards to Columbia University (Teachers College, 1932, M.A.) and studied for the ministry at Shaw University (1935, D.D.).

He was heir-apparent to his father at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and succeeded him as pastor in 1937. Upon his return to Harlem from Colgate in 1930 he had launched a career of agitation for civil rights, jobs, and housing for African Americans. It was the era of the Depression. He led demonstrations against department stores, Bell Telephone, Consolidated Edison, and Harlem Hospital, among others, to hire African Americans.

Elected to the city council in 1941, he continued to press for civil rights and for jobs for African Americans in public transportation and the city colleges. As editor of the militant People's Voice from 1942, and with a reputation gained from his church for doing something about the destitute (he directed a soup kitchen and a relief operation that fed and clothed thousands of Harlem indigents), he was a force to be reckoned with in the Depression. Leader of the largest African American church in the nation (13, 000 members—a sizeable basis of support), he was ready to use his ample skill in political demagoguery and his charisma in defense of African American nationalism. At the age of 15 he had joined Marcus Garvey's African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, so he understood African American nationalism. The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia had awarded him a gold medallion for his work of relief in Harlem: he wore it everywhere. Powell's picket lines at the headquarters of the World's Fair in the Empire State Building resulted in hundreds of jobs for African Americans in 1939 and 1940.

But it was after his election to Congress that he really made his stand. He took his seat in 1945 for central Harlem. He was the first African American from an Eastern ghetto and the second African American in Congress—the first was William Dawson of Chicago. Dawson was more moderate than Powell.

As a freshman congressman Powell was appalled at being barred from public facilities in the House of Representatives: dining rooms, steam baths, showers, and barber-shop. He instantly used those facilities; with political instinct, he got his staff to use them also. He engaged Southern segregationists in debate. He tried to bring about an end to segregation in the military, to get African American newsmen admitted to the Senate and House press galleries, to introduce legislation to outlaw Jim Crow in transport, and to inform Congress that the Daughters of the American Revolution were practicing discrimination.

The Southern segregationists were mainly in his own party, the Democratic Party. In 1956 Powell supported Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican seeking a second term, and did not go with Adlai E. Stevenson, the Democratic nominee. He advised Stevenson to reject Southern bigots like Long of Louisiana, Eastland of Mississippi, and Tallmadge of Georgia—all of whom were in the Democratic Party. Eisenhower won, and some Democrats were prepared to punish Powell for his defection. Some critics accused him of currying favor with the federal government over alleged tax irregularities by voting for Eisenhower. Many Democrats had switched to the Republican Party for the presidential choice, as he did, but they were not African American congressmen. Powell was his own man.

Nevertheless, Powell was a Democrat; he welcomed the advent of a new president, Democrat John F. Kennedy in 1960, and became the new chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Despite a high absentee record in the House, his accomplishments as chairman were extraordinary. As Powell himself said: "You don't have to be there if you know which calls to make, which buttons to push, which favors to call in." The committee authorized more important legislation than any other: 48 major pieces of social legislation, embodying more than $14 billion. Kennedy's "New Frontier" and Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs were intimately involved with this committee: education, manpower training, minimum wages, juvenile delinquency, and the war on poverty were all at stake. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson both sent Powell letters of thanks.

All the same, Powell claimed something for his African American constituents with each bill that was laid before him: this was the "Powell Amendment." It called for a stop of federal funds to any organization which practiced racial discrimination. As chairman he had great power to block Great Society legislation; he occasionally held his ground until the Powell Amendment was included in the bill.

As an African American politician and minister he was controversial; as a personality he was extravagant and irreverent. He liked the playboy image, the good life. His first wife was Isabel Washington, a Cotton Club dancer; he had to bully his father into consenting (1933). The marriage lasted ten years. "I fear I just outgrew her, " he said. Wife number two was Hazel Scott, a singer and pianist; they had a good life together from 1945 to 1960, when he divorced her. His third wife was Yvette Marjorie Flores Diago, a member of an influential Puerto Rican family. His affairs were front-page news.

In March 1960 he was interviewed on a television show. He happened to call Esther James a "bag woman" during a debate on police corruption. She sued. Powell refused to make a settlement. He ignored all seven subpoenas and eight years of legal battles. He was wanted for criminal contempt of court by New York State. Finally he escaped to Bimini (Bahamas) in 1966, taking his congressional receptionist, Corinne Huff (former Miss Ohio), with him. She had been with him on a trip on the Queen Mary to Europe in 1962 when she was 21, together with Tamara Hall (an associate labor counsel for Education and Labor). A select committee of the House recommended public censure for Powell, a loss of seniority (his chairmanship), and the dismissal of Huff. The House voted to exclude him altogether (March 1967).

At a special election two months later Powell received a stunning victory—and he did not even campaign in Harlem. Contributions from his supporters and profits from a phonograph record ("Keep the Faith, Baby") were used to pay the damages in the James suit. In March 1968 Powell returned to Harlem triumphantly, and in January 1969 he was seated in Congress yet again, although without seniority. The Supreme Court ruled that the House acted unconstitutionally when he was unseated. Powell quipped: "From now on, America will know the Supreme Court is the place where you can get justice."

In 1970 he was defeated in the Democratic primary. He died on April 4, 1972, of prostate cancer; his ashes were scattered over Bimini. His death caused a legal squabble between his current mistress and his estranged third wife. Powell was a pioneer civil rights worker 30 years before it was fashionable; his legacy to African Americans was his "sassiness."

Further Reading

For the best reading about this subject, see Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Adam by Adam (1971). Andy Jacobs' The Powell Affair: Freedom Minus One (1973) is the story of the vote in the House of Representatives (1967) which unseated Powell. There is an obituary in the New York Times, April 5, 1972, which provides additional information. □

Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr.

views updated May 11 2018

Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. 1908–1972

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a flamboyant U.S. civil rights leader and clergyman from New York. He became the first African American to wield extensive structural power in the U.S. Congress. Representing New York City’s community of Harlem in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1945 to 1971, Powell rose to be chairman of its powerful Education and Labor Committee (1961–1967), where he insured that key laws against racial discrimination and for economic and social justice were enacted.

The only child of Mattie Fletcher Schaefer Powell and the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Adam Jr. was born on November 29, 1908, in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father was pastor at the Emmanuel Baptist Church and studied at the Yale Divinity School. It was in that same year that his father accepted the position of pastor at the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church (ABC) in New York City.

Founded in 1808 by blacks refusing to abide any longer the racial segregation in Manhattan’s First Baptist Church, ABC was a venerable African-American institution. In its pulpit, Powell Sr. became one of the leading clergymen of his day. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University (1930) in Hamilton, New York, and a master’s degree from Columbia University (1932), Powell Jr. was hired by his father, first as the church’s business manager and community center director, and then as assistant pastor. The Depression-era soup kitchen and community outreach programs he developed at the ABC facilities on West 138th St. helped expand the congregation into a megachurch, boasting 14,000 members in the mid-1930s. This experience served as a solid basis for the younger Powell’s assaults on racial injustice after he succeeded his ailing father as pastor in 1937.

Powell Jr. led rent strikes to improve living conditions in Harlem and organized boycott campaigns designed to achieve better jobs for blacks. His work helped to improve public health care for blacks, particularly at the city’s Harlem Hospital, and to break employment barriers on city transport and other public utilities, as well as in many department stores and at the 1939–1940 World’s Fair held in New York City.

Powell never shirked the limelight. His ABC position and work focused further attention on him, which only grew as he matured. He represented a less restrained and more demanding “New Negro” community. He was a major supporter of the union leader A. Philip Randolph’s successful effort in setting up the National Negro Congress in Chicago in 1936. The aim of the congress, which was attended by more than 800 delegates, was to get the government to address the needs of blacks during the Depression.

Powell saw the potential of blacks’ concerted economic and political power. He believed that the large number of blacks drawn to Chicago in the Great Migration from the South to the North earlier in the century had illustrated that strength. It was in Chicago in 1928 that Oscar DePriest, whose family had moved north from Alabama in the 1878, became the first black in the twentieth century to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Subsequently, Chicago’s black voters elected Arthur W. Mitchell and William L. Dawson to that same seat.

Powell believed this process could be repeated in Harlem. He therefore entered electoral politics and was elected to the New York City Council in 1941. Using ABC as a base within the larger community of Harlem, Powell was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1945. Almost immediately he clashed with the legislative establishment, which was dominated by whites from the South. Rejecting practices that restricted blacks from certain congressional facilities, he demanded the same access as other members of Congress. On the House floor, he challenged segregationist members and programs. He routinely attached antidiscrimination clauses (initially ridiculed as the “Powell Amendment”) to federal spending measures, presaging federal antidiscrimination practices that became common in the 1960s. He also championed Third World independence and development in the years following World War II.

Powell rode the crest of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Through the rigid seniority rules of Congress, he became chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor in 1961. He used this position to advance desegregation and antipoverty legislation, raise the federal minimum wage, and increase funding for public education. A key figure behind the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, he also championed aid for persons with disabilities.

Powell’s open disregard for convention and his being one of only a half-dozen African-American congressmen in the mid-1960s made him conspicuous. His high living-style, notorious womanizing, and three marriages grated against traditional images of a suitably religious pastor. His political outspokenness made him an alluring target in the hotly contested civil rights era. Powell paid the consequences of his personal and political flamboyance in 1967. After charges of corruption, tax evasion, and misappropriation of funds, the House Democratic Caucus stripped him of his committee chairmanship, and in March 1967 the full House voted 307 to 116 to exclude him from membership. He challenged the action, appealing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in Powell v. McCormack (1969) ruled his exclusion unconstitutional. In the interim, Powell’s Harlem constituency twice reelected him. But he had other legal problems, having become something of a fugitive from his own district because of an unpaid 1963 libel judgment against him.

Fading but still fiery in the late 1960s, Powell represented a militancy that bridged black generations since the 1920s in their struggle against racism and segregation. His 1967 sermon “Black Power: A Form of Godly Power,” along with his six-sermon record album titled “Keep the Faith, Baby!” (1967), resonated for yet another generation insistent on more immediate racial and social justice. Emperor Haile Selassie in 1969 personally bestowed on Powell the Golden Cross of Ethiopia for his internationally recognized work. Yet Powell’s long peccadilloes, particularly his congressional absenteeism, finally exhausted his Harlem constituency’s patience, and in 1970 it replaced him with Charles B. Rangel. In decreasing health from a heart attack, chest tumor, and cancer, Powell withdrew to his Bahamian island retreat of Bimini. He died at sixty-three in Miami, Florida, on April 4, 1972.


Hamilton, Charles V. 1991. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma. New York: Atheneum.

Haygood, Wil. 1993. King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. 1945. Marching Blacks: An Interpretive History of the Rise of the Black Common Man. New York: Dial Press.

_____. 1971. Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. New York: Dial Press.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. 1998. Black Heroes of the Twentieth Century. Detroit: Visible Ink Press.

Thomas J. Davis