Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. loomed as a giant in the Black community of Harlem, not only as the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, but also as a community activist and the first African-American to represent New York in the United States House of Representatives.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born in New Haven, Connecticut on November 29, 1908. He was the son of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., then a Baptist minister in New Haven and his wife Mattie Buster Shaffer. He had an older sister Blanche and the family was of mixed racial origins; African, European and Native American. Powell Sr. had graduated from Wayland Seminary, Yale University and Virginia Seminary and was chosen to pastor the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, eventually growing the church to more than 10,000 members.
Adam Jr., because of his father’s success, grew up in a rather wealthy household and attended Townsend Harris High School before studying at City College of New York and then Colgate University (his father sent him to Colgate, a Baptist school, to put Adam on the right path and to get him away from the nightlife and nightclubs that he avidly frequented). He was a handsome young man and because of his fair skin and hazel eyes, he was often able to pass as being white (at birth his hair was blonde), often allowing him to avoid much of the racial strife that was directed towards his Black classmates. This caused a great deal of anger on their part towards him because he withheld his racial background from his classmates, even joining a white fraternity (very uncommon in those days).
His father encouraged him to follow in his footsteps as a minister. Adam Jr. (Adam) received his Bachelor’s degree from Colgate in 1930 and then received an M.A. in Religious Education from Columbia University a year later. Although he had originally planned to pursue a job in the field of medicine, he realized that the church would provide him with a ready-made career. Following his ordination, Adam assisted his father at the church, both preaching to the congregation and in growing the outreach to the community (primarily in charitable endeavors), and took over for his father as Head Pastor of the church in 1938. He married Isabel Washington, a star dancer at the Cotton Club, in 1933, and adopted her son Preston. He was deeply committed to the church, its parishioners and the community around him and was now the pastor of the largest protestant congregation in the United States.
He became prominent in political activism, fighting for employment opportunities and fair housing. He became the Chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Employment, mounting pressure on local businesses to hire Blacks on all levels of employment. He led very noteworthy protests including a “Shop Only Where You Can Work” boycott of all of stores along 125th, shutting most of them down, thereby forcing them to hire Black workers. During the World’s Fair of 1939, his protesters picketed in front of the Fair’s headquarters at the Empire State Building, which resulted in a 250% increase in Black hiring. Two years later, he led the bus boycott of the New York Transit authority, leading to 200 additional jobs for Black constituents. His activism on the part of the community led him to run for the New York City Council and he was elected in 1941, the first Black to serve on the Council.
Three years later he ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. He ran on a campaign of fighting for the civil rights of Blacks, including seeking a ban on obstacles for voting rights (such as poll taxes), fair employment opportunities and a ban on lynching. Running as a Democrat, he was elected in 1944, representing the 22nd Congressional district (which included Harlem) and was the first Black Congressman from the state of New York. He did not try to ease his way in quietly and instead directly addressed issues that affected his constituents. With Jim Crow being the law of the land in the south and almost all of the southern Congressmen being segregationists, there had been no one willing to stand on the House floor and raise issues that affected Blacks throughout the nation. Powell would be the man to do so.
Powell did not make many friends, especially among the southern Congressmen, but he stood up and addressed issues facing Blacks. One particularly noteworthy incident occurred when he stood on the House floor and chastised Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi. A tradition within the House was that freshmen Congressmen did not speak on the House floor during their first year. On this occasion, however, when Rankin used the word “nigger” on the House floor, Powell stood and announced “the time has arrived to impeach Rankin, or at least expel him from the party.” To take on a Congressman as powerful as Rankin demonstrated that Powell would be a force to be reckoned with. Powell would take particular delight in irritating Rankin. Rankin had called Powell’s election to the house “a disgrace” and when Rankin made it known that he did not want to sit anywhere near Powell, Adam would find any opportunity possible to sit close to the Mississippi Congressman. On one occasion he followed him from seat to seat until Rankin had moved five times.
In 1945, having divorced Isabel, Powell married Hazel Scott, a jazz singer and pianist. The two had a son whom they named Adam Clayton Powell III. Powell served with only one other Black Congressman (William Levi Dawson of Illinois) until 1955 and they were both subject to numerous informal barriers within Congressional offices. Powell protested and refused to defer to the bans on the “Whites Only” House restaurant, the Congressional Barber Shop, the House gymnasium and other facilities. He constantly battled segregationists on both policy and decorum and found allies within the Black community and with organizations like the NAACP to push for equality for Blacks throughout the United States.
One method he used to attain his goals was referred to as the “Powell Amendments.” On any proposed legislation that would call for federal expenditures, he would offer an amendment that required that federal funds be denied to any jurisdiction that maintained segregation. This grated on both liberal allies and conservative foes but it gradually seeped into the mindsets of the politicians, as they realized that Powell was not going to stop and was not going away. Some were not ready to give up their fight, however. During a 1955 meeting of the Education and Labor Committee, Powell was punched in the face by West Virginia Congressman Cleveland Bailey, a segregationist who was so incensed by Powell’s persistent use of the “Powell Amendment” rider.
His willingness to anger even his allies led him to buck the party ticket in 1956 and throw his support behind Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Powell was dissatisfied with the Democratic Party platform on civil rights and made sure that he was not seen as a rubber stamp for the Democratic Party. He also sailed against mainstream opinions when he travelled to Indonesia for the 1955 Asian-African Conference, which celebrated the recent move to independence from colonialism for countries that included Ghana, Sierra Leone and Indonesia. The State Department had asked him to not attend, but he did so as an observer and ended up speaking of the need to end colonialism abroad and segregation at home while also defending the United States against the communist talking points being used against his country. Powell returned home to a warm reception, honored as “Man of the Year” by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and was invited to speak with President Eisenhower. He offered the opinion that the United States was wasting an opportunity to truly compete with the Soviet Union by trotting out ballet companies and symphonies to tour around the world. Instead, he thought, the country should focus on presenting more current and popular American offerings such as jazz music, which was an American created style of music, appealing to and engaged in by members of various races. Powell suggested sending well-known jazz musicians to tour abroad, spreading the American art form to catch the ear of younger citizens of the world. The State Department agreed and set up such a goodwill tour including well-known musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie. Gillespie headlined the tour, which many referred to as “Jazz Diplomacy.” The musicians were able to meet with high-ranking officials as well as with the “common man” and the tour was considered a great success. One man who attended a concert in Zagreb, Yugoslavia stated, “What this country needs is fewer ambassadors and more jam sessions!”
In 1960, having divorced Hazel, Adam married again, this time to Yvette Flores Diago, the daughter of the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. They had a son whom he also named Adam Clayton Powell (this son would later change his name to Adam Clayton Powell, IV).
After serving the House of Representatives for 15 years, Powell was finally granted a committee chairmanship in 1961 when he became the Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. The committee’s stated purpose is “to ensure that Americans’ needs are addressed so that students and workers may move forward in a changing school system and a competitive global economy.” Under his leadership, the committee created federal programs addressing Medicaid, minimum wage and equal pay for women, as well as education for the disabled, support for libraries and vocational training. Much of this legislation was incorporated into President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” program as well as President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and “War on Poverty” programs.
Some of his greatest triumphs involved passing legislation to protect the rights of Blacks, particularly those affected by Jim Crow laws in the south. He authored bills to criminalize lynching, dismantle public school segregation and to abolish the Southern practice of charging a Poll Tax to Black voters. This tax was applied to voters in many southern states, but a grandfather clause allowed those adult males whose father or grandfather had voted prior to emancipation to be exempt from the tax. As such, white male voters were allowed to vote, while many Black voters who could not afford to pay the tax were prevented from engaging in the electoral process. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 included many of these provisions and called for enforcement of them.
His growing power made him a target for his political enemies. Unfortunately, in many ways, Powell made himself an easier target through his spending of committee funds, his legal problems, his erratic behavior, his habit of constantly traveling and his often being absent from the House. Without a doubt, many of the southern House members opposed him simply because of his race and looked for any opportunity to punish him. Unfortunately for Powell, although he had fought so hard against unfair treatment by House members, he had also given them plenty of ammunition to use against him.
In 1958, Powell was indicted by a Federal grand jury for income tax evasion. The trial ended in a hung jury but the Federal government continued to investigate his finances. In 1960, Powell gave a television interview in which he accused a Harlem widow named Esther James of being a “bag woman” for corrupt police payoffs. James sued him and was awarded $211,500.00 in a jury award. Powell refused to pay the damages and instead would only return to his district in Harlem on Sundays when he when he could not be served by court officials (the award was eventually paid out years later after he was cited for criminal contempt, but the matter damaged him significantly). In 1967, a House committee suspended Powell’s third wife, Yvette Diago, and accused her of being on the House payroll without doing any work. Diago, in fact, admitted that she had moved to Puerto Rico in 1961, but was paid from Powell’s Congressional payroll from that time until January of 1967 when the allegation came to light and she was fired.
He also travelled a great deal, with stays in Florida as well as a vacation home he owned in Bimini in the Bahamas. House opponents accused him of using House funds to pay for this travel, including once when he was accompanied by two young women at the expense of the Federal government (the women were Tamara Wall, a staff attorney and secretary Corinne Huff, the first Black Miss Ohio, with whom Powell was romantically involved). As such, the House Democratic Caucus stripped him of his committee leadership in January of 1967 and the full House refused to seat him until the Judiciary Committee completed an investigation of him. On March 1, 1967, by a vote of 307 to 116, the House voted to exclude him from its proceedings. Powell decided to sue to retain his seat. Although he won a Special Election to fill his vacant seat (by a margin of 7-1), he refused to take it, preferring to challenge his removal in court. In the meantime, in November of 1968, his constituents in Harlem defiantly re-elected him with overwhelming support. The House had no choice but to seat him now, but did so while at the same time denying him seniority and fining him $25,000.00. On June 16, 1969, the United States Supreme Court decided 7-1 in Powell vs. McCormack that the House had violated his constitutional rights in refusing to seat him, as he was a duly elected member of Congress. Unfortunately, after his Supreme Court victory, he seemed to rub it in the faces of his foes, showing up for only nine roll calls out of 177, a record for absenteeism. He was the most powerful Black politician of his time, but like many great men, it seemed that hubris was to become his most destructive opponent.
Regarding his travel expenditures, Powell defended himself saying, “I will always do just what every other Congressman and committee chairman has done and is doing and will do.” His constituents had grown weary of their Representative always seeming to have to put out fires, whether in the form of lawsuits, political fights or embarrassing scandals. He was defeated in the Democratic primary in 1970 by Charles Rangel by a mere 150 votes. He attempted to get on the November ballot as an independent through a signature campaign, but failed to do so and resigned from his position at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and retired to his home in Bimini.
In April 1972, Powell’s health began faltering and he was rushed from Bimini to Miami, Florida where he was hospitalized. He died on April 4, 1972 due to acute prostatitis, an inflammation of the prostate gland. His funeral was held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and his ashes were spread by his son, Adam III, over the waters of Bimini.
Over the years, numerous public schools have been named after him as has an office building in Harlem on Seventh Avenue and an area north of Central Park in New York City was renamed Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard. His real legacy, though, is as a confident political figure when many Blacks were afraid to speak out against the racism and poverty that they saw. He was a bright and engaging leader who would not back down from his opponents and led the fight to change things in a turbulent society. Most of all, he is seen as a man who opened the doors for a number of minorities who would follow in his footsteps as politicians in the Untied States Congress.
Rev. Adam Clayton Powell