Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., (November 29, 1908 – April 4, 1972) was 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 in New York of African-American descent elected to Congress, and became a powerful national politician. In 1961, after sixteen years in the House, Powell became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, the most powerful position held by an African American in Congress. As Chairman, he supported the passage of important social legislation under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Following allegations of corruption in 1967, Powell was excluded from his seat by Democratic Representatives, but he regained the seat in a 1969 United States Supreme Court ruling.
Powell was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the second child and only son of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Mattie Buster Shaffer, both born poor in Virginia and West Virginia, respectively. His sister Blanche was 10 years older. His parents were of mixed race with African and European ancestry (and, according to his father, American Indian on his mother's side). Classified as mulatto in 19th-century censuses, Powell Sr. became a prominent Baptist minister. He worked his way out of poverty and through Wayland Seminary, a historically black college, and did postgraduate study at Yale University and Virginia Seminary. In 1908, he was called as the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City and served for decades. The Church expanded during the years of the Great Migration to a membership of 10,000.
Due to his father's achievements, Powell, Jr. grew up in a wealthy household in New York City. He attended Townsend Harris High School. He studied at City College of New York, then started at Colgate University as a freshman. The four other African-American students at Colgate were all athletes. Powell earned his bachelor's degree in 1930 (28 years before I did). He also earned an M.A. in religious education from Columbia University in 1931.
After ordination, Powell began assisting his father with charitable services at the church, and as a preacher. He greatly enlarged the volume of meals and clothing provided to the needy, and began to learn more about the lives of the working class and poor in Harlem. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Powell, a handsome and charismatic figure, became a prominent civil rights leader and community organizer – a path that a certain Barrack Obama would take to an even higher public office.
He developed a formidable public following in the Harlem community through his crusades for jobs and affordable housing. As chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Employment, he used numerous methods of community organizing to bring political pressure on major businesses to open their doors to black employees at professional levels. He organized mass meetings, rent strikes, and public campaigns to force companies, utilities and Harlem Hospital, which operated in the community, to hire black workers at a skill level higher than the lowest positions to which they had been restricted. In 1938, he succeeded his father as Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
In 1941, with the aid of New York City's use of the Single Transferable Vote, Powell was elected to the New York City Council as the city's first black council representative. He received 65,736 votes, the third-best total among the six successful council candidates. “Mass action is the most powerful force on earth," Powell once said, adding, "As long as it is within the law, it's not wrong; if the law is wrong, change the law." In 1944, Powell ran on a platform of civil rights for African Americans; support for "fair employment practices; and a ban on poll taxes and lynching." He was elected as a Democrat to represent the congressional district that included Harlem in the U.S. House of Representatives.] He was the first black Congressman from New York State and the first in the Post-Reconstruction Era from any Northern state other than Illinois.
As the historian Charles V. Hamilton wrote in his 1992 political biography:
"Here was a person who [in the 1940s] would at least 'speak out.'... That would be different ... Many Negroes were angry that no Northern liberals would get up on the floor of Congress and challenge the segregationists. ... Powell certainly promised to do that. ... [In] the 1940s and 1950s, he was, indeed, virtually alone.... And precisely because of that, he was exceptionally crucial. In many instances during those earlier times, if he did not speak out, the issue would not have been raised. ... For example, only he could (or would dare to) challenge Congressman Rankin of Mississippi on the House floor in the 1940s for using the word 'nigger.' He certainly did not change Rankin's mind or behavior, but he gave solace to millions who longed for a little retaliatory defiance."
As one of only two black Congressmen (the other being William Levi Dawson) until 1955, Powell challenged the informal ban on black representatives using Capitol facilities reserved for white members. He clashed with the many segregationists in his party. The white Congressmen and Senators controlled all the seats allocated for the total population in the southern states, had established seniority, and commanded many important committee chairs in the House and Senate.
Powell worked closely with Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP representative in Washington, to try to gain justice in federal programs. Hamilton described the NAACP as "the quarterback that threw the ball to Powell who, to his credit, was more than happy to catch and run with it." He developed a strategy known as the "Powell Amendments." "On bill after bill that proposed federal expenditures, Powell would offer 'our customary amendment,' requiring that federal funds be denied to any jurisdiction that maintained segregation; Liberals would be embarrassed, Southern politicians angered." This principle became integrated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Powell was also willing to act independently.Iin 1956, he broke party ranks and supported President Dwight D. Eisenhower for re-election, saying the civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform was too weak. In 1958, he survived a determined effort by the Tammany Hall Democratic Party machine in New York to oust him in the primary election. In 1960, Powell, hearing of planned civil rights marches at the Democratic Convention which could embarrass the party or it’s candidate, threatened to accuse Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. of having a homosexual relationship with the activist Bayard Rustin unless the marches were cancelled. King agreed to cancel the planned events, and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He also paid attention to the issues of developing nations in Africa and Asia, making trips overseas and urging presidential policymakers to pay attention to nations seeking independence from colonial powers and support aid to them. During the Cold War, many of these countries sought neutrality between the United States and the Soviet Union. Powell made speeches on the House Floor to celebrate the anniversaries of the independence of nations such as Ghana, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone. In addition, Powell, against the State Department's advice which preferred to ignore the event, attended the Asian–African Conference in 1955 as an observer. Once there, Powell made a positive international impression in public addresses that balanced his concerns of his nation's race relations problems with a spirited defense of the United States as a whole against Communist criticisms.
Returning to the USA to a warm bipartisan reception for his performance, Powell was invited to speak with President Dwight Eisenhower. With this influence, Powell suggested to the State Department that the current manner of competing with the Soviet Union in the realm of fine arts such as international symphony orchestra and ballet company tours was ineffective. Instead, he advised that the USA should focus on the popular arts such as sponsoring international tours of famous jazz musicians, which could draw attention to an indigenous American art form with artists who often performed in mixed race bands. The State Department approved the idea and the first such tour with Dizzy Gillespie proved to be an outstanding success abroad and prompted similarly popular tours with other musicians for years.
In 1961, after 15 years in Congress, Powell became chairman of the powerful Education and Labor Committee. In this position, he presided over federal social programs for minimum wage and Medicaid (established later under Johnson); he expanded the minimum wage to include retail workers; and worked for equal pay for women; he supported education and training for the deaf, nursing education, and vocational training; he led legislation for standards for wages and work hours as well as for aid for elementary and secondary education and school libraries. Powell's committee proved extremely effective in enacting major parts of President Kennedy's "New Frontier" and President Johnson's "Great Society" social programs and the War on Poverty. It successfully reported to Congress "49 pieces of bedrock legislation" as President Johnson put it in an 18 May 1966 letter congratulating Powell on the fifth anniversary of his chairmanship.
Powell was instrumental in passing legislation that made lynching a federal crime, as well as bills that desegregated public schools. He challenged the Southern practice of charging Blacks a poll tax to vote, but electoral practices were not changed substantially in most of the South until after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided federal oversight of voter registration and elections, and enforcement of the constitutional right to vote.
By the mid-1960s, Powell was increasingly being criticized for mismanaging his committee's budget, taking trips abroad at public expense, and missing sittings of his committee. "I wish to state very emphatically," he said once when under attack for personal conduct by Congress and the press (he had taken two young women at government expense with him on overseas travel) "that I will always do just what every other Congressman and committee chairman has done and is doing and will do." Opponents led criticism in his District, where his refusal to pay a slander judgment made him subject to arrest. He then spent increasing amounts of time in Florida. In January 1967, the House Democratic Caucus stripped Powell of his committee chairmanship. The full House refused to seat him until completion of an investigation by the Judiciary Committee. Powell urged his supporters to "keep the faith, baby" while the investigation was under way. On March 1, the House voted 307 to 116 to exclude him. Powell said, "On this day, the 1st day of March, in my opinion begins the end of the United States of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave."
Powell won the special election to fill the vacancy caused by his exclusion, but he did not take his seat, as he was filing a separate suit to retain his seat. In November 1968, Powell was re-elected. On January 3, 1969, he was seated as a member of the 91st Congress; but he was fined $25,000 and denied seniority. In June 1969, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell, a duly elected member. Powell's increasing absenteeism was noted by his constituents and in June 1970 he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Charles B. Rangel. That fall, after failing to get enough signatures to get on the November ballot as an Independent, he resigned as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and moved to his retreat on Bimini. As of 2012, Rangel continues to represent the district, having been repeatedly re-elected.