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Adam Clayton Powell Jr
Adam Clayton Powell Jr Adam Clayton Powell Jr


An American politician and pastor who represented Harlem, New York City, in the United States House of Representatives (1945–71) He was the first person from New York of African American descent to be elected to Congress, and became a powerful national politician 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 Adam's 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 Powell's 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" Powell's beloved older sister, Blanche, died of a ruptured appendix during Adam's first year in college, and this tragedy caused him to return to live at home His attitude was, in Hamilton's 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 1920s--an 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 school's president was a friend of Powell's father and promised to watch out for the boy Powell's race was kept secret for a while, until he tried to join an all-white 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 Powell's 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 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 theme--one that would pervade his entire political career--was 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 Harlem's Amsterdam Isabel--a Catholic--agreed to be baptized by Powell's father, and she and the younger Powell were married in 1933 Powell subsequently became her son Preston's 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 pastor's 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 Powell's early political work involved building and maintaining coalitions between several volatile factions, including Communists and Black Nationalists His own rhetoric--focusing on the need for worker solidarity and economic justice--often 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 didn't affect his activism on behalf of workers, however, and in 1939 GNYCC picketed discriminatory hiring practices at the World's 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 and--for the first time--the hiring of black bus drivers in New York City 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 didn't like the idea, and there were other tensions in the marriage--including Powell's obvious romantic interest in jazz pianist Hazel Scott--but the flamboyant minister would not be deterred He reformed GNYCC as the People's 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 People's 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 Scientists--chaired by famed physicist Albert Einstein--and the Dorie Miller and Meyer Levin Award for his efforts to improve relations between blacks and Jews Powell's 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 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 Truman's 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 time--the only other black congressman was Chicago's William Dawson--and 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 wasn't seriously challenged for his seat for more than 20 years In 1946 Powell left the People's 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 FBI--which had been investigating Powell since 1942 for his connections with antisegregationist and communist groups--became 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 Stevenson's 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 Eisenhower's 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 Selassie's visit to Abyssinian in 1954 Powell's 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 Powell's 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, Powell's 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 government's lack of action on civil rights, Powell attacked the Eisenhower administration in a 1958 telegram that he leaked to the press According to Hamilton, Powell's 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 troubles--and perhaps for other reasons--he was banned from the first White House meeting with civil rights leaders Even Martin Luther King, Jr, suggested excluding him Powell's absenteeism from Congress and what some called his egocentrism and arrogance increasingly frustrated his supporters.

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 Kennedy's 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 Kennedy's 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 Powell's 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 wasn't 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 and--importantly for Powell--making headlines Meanwhile Powell's alleged extramarital affairs, along with his paid vacations and a libel suit filed by a New York woman he accused of being a bag woman--a money carrier for organized crime--led 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 Hamilton's words, "a perennial point of vulnerability" He was re-elected 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 legal--segregation 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, Powell's 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 Powell's 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 didn't endear him to the power structure; in addition to the libel suit filed by the alleged bag woman Esther James--which would drag on through appeals and countersuits for nearly a decade--he 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 Powell's handling of committee funds Yvette Powell, the congressman's third wife, testified that she hadn't 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 US 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 Powell's 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 Kennedy's 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 me even 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 Powell's common-law wife during his final years--Darlene Expose Hine--all attended, as did Powell's 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 Harlem--including what used to be Seventh Avenue--is the tallest structure: the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, State Office Building .

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