Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
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.
In the courtroom, Cohn was agile, cool and impressive. He became closely identified in the public eye with the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after conducting what was described as a brilliant direct examination in which David Greenglass identified his sister, Mrs. Rosenberg, as a member of a Soviet spy ring. The Rosenbergs were convicted of conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Russians and were eventually electrocuted.
In 1950, Irving Saypol, then the United States Attorney, promoted Cohn, making him his confidential assistant. One of Cohn's first duties in Washington was to prepare the indictment of Owen Lattimore on perjury charges. The charges against Mr. Lattimore, a China expert who taught at Johns Hopkins University, stemmed from the rampaging McCarthy subcommittee, which in the early 1950's was branding dozens of Americans -government officials, writers, actors and others - as traitors, Communists or fellow travelers. Senator McCarthy, the subcommittee chairman, called Mr. Lattimore "the top Russian espionage agent in the United States."
By early 1953, Cohn's brand of anti-Communism had won him so much admiration from Senator McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who was the chairman of the Senate's Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, that Cohn was named chief counsel to the Subcommittee. This was much to the chagrin of Robert Kennedy, the Democratic minority's counsel, who coveted the job, and this was the beginning of an enmity between the two men that was to last for years.
Roy M. Cohn, was chief counsel to Joseph R. McCarthy's Senate investigations in the 1950's into Communist influence in American life. Cohn’s 38-year career brought him prominence, political influence and personal celebrity but ended in disbarment in New York State. Although Cohn’s immediate cause of death was "cardio-pulmonary arrest," the death certificate also listed two secondary causes of death: "dementia" and "underlying HTLV-3 infections." Near death with what he said was liver cancer, Mr. Cohn was disbarred from the practice of law in New York State. In a unanimous decision, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court said his conduct in four legal matters was "unethical," "unprofessional" and, in one case, "particularly reprehensible." Cohn denied that there was any substance to the allegations and contended that his disbarment was the result of a smear campaign engineered by his enemies - "a bunch of yo-yos" - because "the establishment bar hates my guts."
Nearly two decades after he had become, almost overnight, a nationally known personality, Cohn predicted that even if he died at age 100, his obituary would be headlined: "Roy Cohn Dead; Was McCarthy Investigations Aide." It was for his work as chief counsel to Senator McCarthy's Communist-hunting subcommittee in the early 1950's, the age of McCarthyism, that he became an often celebrated, often denigrated national figure.
When Cohn left the Washington scene in 1954, he did not become, as some predicted, a has-been. Instead, he returned to New York to practice law and in the process became a political power broker, a friend of the rich and the fashionable, one of the city's most sought-after legal talents and probably a very wealthy man. He won a reputation for loyalty to his friends and clients, and they returned it. Devoted to celebrating his birthday, he gave lavish annual parties, usually at his estate in Greenwich, and his famous friends and clients all came. At the 1983 gathering, for instance, the guest list included such diverse personalities as former Mayor Abraham D. Beame of New York, the former Tammany boss Carmine G. de Sapio, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, the Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade H. Esposito, several Federal judges and Richard A. Viguerie, the publisher of the Conservative Digest, who praised his host as "24-carat, one of life's great Americans."
Cohn counted among his friends such people as President Reagan (although a Democrat, Mr. Cohn tended to support Republican Presidents), Norman Mailer, Bianca Jagger, Barbara Walters, Rupert Murdoch, William F. Buckley Jr., William Safire, George Steinbrenner, Estee Lauder, Warren Avis and dozens of politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, at every level, from Cabinet members to county judges. As a lawyer he represented such diverse clients as Donald Trump and Sam Lefrak, the real-estate executives; Francis Cardinal Spellman and Terence Cardinal Cooke and, on occasion, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. He also represented Carmine Galante, who before his death was said by authorities to be Mafia "boss of all bosses," and Tony (Fat Tony) Salerno, also said to be a Mafia chieftain.
"Truth is hardly ever an absolute -there are so many elements," Cohn said after successfully defending Mr. Salerno, who was accused of income-tax violations. He said Mr. Salerno, known as a gambling kingpin, was "technically guilty," but the lawyer said he had won the case because he had shown that Mr. Salerno, unlike most gamblers, had actually declared and paid taxes on most of his income.
A lifelong bachelor, Roy lived extremely well. To avoid high taxes, he drew a comparatively low salary of $100,000 a year from his law firm, which compensated him further, and regally, by giving him a rent-free Manhattan apartment, paying part of the rent on his Greenwich home, supplying him with the use of a chauffeured Rolls-Royce and other fine cars and paying all his bills at expensive restaurants such as Le Cirque, "21" and many others. These expenses were said to run to $1 million a year. Roy's friends, some of whom said they loved him despite his roguish ways, prized his ability to represent them in court or just to get them tickets to sports events and the theater or easy entry into a popular discotheque.
Cohn was a short, ungainly man with thinning hair and blue eyes, which were often bloodshot, perhaps because he kept late hours at fashionable discotheques such as Studio 54 and the Palladium, although he said he "adored" the sun. Despite his tan, Mr. Cohn's bantam body (he weighed 145 pounds) gave the impression that his physique was fragile
Cohn himself was almost constantly in conflict with the Internal Revenue Service, which audited his tax returns more than 20 years in a row. In 1979 alone, the I.R.S. had claims of almost $1 million against him, and there were liens totaling $3.18 million, dating back a quarter century, against any assets he might accumulate. He had many other legal troubles, some of which he seemed to enjoy. He was tried and acquitted three times in Federal court on charges ranging from conspiracy to bribery to fraud. Cohn maintained that he was subjected to these "ordeals" because of "vendettas" arranged by Robert F. Kennedy or by Robert M. Morgenthau, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
That kind of combativeness came naturally to Mr. Cohn, who once said: "My scare value is high. My area is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset. I don't write polite letters. I don't like to plea-bargain. I like to fight. You might want a nice gentle fight, but once you get in the ring and take a couple of pokes, it gets under your skin. "It's fair to say that in an adversary situation I've got one role - to win for my client. Law is an adversary profession. But within the bounds which are permitted, most lawyers are Caspar Milquetoasts. They don't realize that they are in a fight. To them, a lawsuit is nothing more than going to court, then going out to lunch with your adversary. To me it's serious business."
To assist Senator McCarthy in his much-publicized crusade to "root out Communism in government," Mr. Cohn enlisted the services of his closest friend, his fellow 25-year-old, G. David Schine. Schine was the son of J. Myer Schine, a multimillionaire who owned a string of hotels and movie theaters. Schine, who received no pay, was billed as the subcommittee's consultant on psychological warfare. As they plowed through investigations of the State Department and the Voice of America, relentlessly trying to sniff out Communists or their sympathizers, Cohn, Schine and Senator McCarthy, all bachelors at the time, were themselves the targets of what some called "reverse McCarthyism." There were snickering suggestions that the three men were homosexuals, and attacks such as that by the playwright Lillian Hellman who called them "Bonnie, Bonnie and Clyde."
Years later, Cohn denied that he was "ever gay-inclined" and pointed out that Mr. McCarthy got married and had a son, and that Dave Schine married a former Miss Universe and had a bunch of kids Nevertheless, it was Cohn's intense devotion to Schine at the time they were working for the McCarthy committee that got them both into serious trouble. After Schine was drafted into the Army in November 1953, and Cohn, with Senator McCarthy's aid, was unable to help him win a commission, Cohn in effect declared war on the Army. The Army had already run into trouble with the McCarthy committee, which accused Army Secretary Robert T. Stevens and other officials of trying to conceal evidence of espionage activities that Cohn and his staff were said to have uncovered at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
When Mr. Schine became Private Schine, Cohn was initially able to win many concessions for him from the Army, such as nightly passes while he was in basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and guarantees that there would be no noxious kitchen duties for his friend and that he was to be treated generally as an important person. Finally, however, Stevens, fed up with Cohn's frequent interference on behalf of Private Schine, released a detailed 34-page report on the Cohn demands. Included in the report was Cohn's threat to "wreck the Army" for not giving Private Schine all the special treatment that had been sought for him by Cohn and Senator McCarthy. Mr. Stevens formally charged McCarthy, Cohn and another subcommittee staff member with seeking by improper means to obtain preferential treatment for Private Schine.
In the resulting televised Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn and Senator McCarthy were cleared in August 1954 of the Army's charges. But the public had witnessed Senator McCarthy's often irrational behavior in action and the methods of McCarthyism in the raw, and the Senator's popularity quickly began to wane. In December, 1954, Senator McCarthy was formally censured by his colleagues, when the Senate voted to "condemn" him on a number of points, including contempt for a Senate elections subcommittee that had investigated his conduct and financial affairs, and insults to the Senate itself during the censure proceedings. After that rebuke, and with the Democrats back in control following the 1954 elections, McCarthy's influence in the Senate and on the national scene steadily diminished until his death in 1957.
Leaving Washington, Cohn joined the New York law firm that became Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, where he put his family's political power to work, along with his considerable knowledge of the law. Devoting himself almost entirely to his work, he brought into the firm a long list of high-paying clients. So close was he to his job that he even made his New York home in the East Side town house that served as Saxe, Bacon's offices. Through the years, Cohn honed his reputation as a ferociously loyal advocate, one whose courtroom technique was admired even by his detractors. He seemed always on the attack, intimidating prosecutors, flustering witnesses and impressing jurors by seldom referring to notes. He was said to have a photographic memory.
In a variety of trials relating to accusations of a variety of his misconducts, Cohn said his chief persecutor was Robert Kennedy, his fellow staff counsel on the McCarthy committee, who later became Attorney General of the United States. Their mutual hatred had been so intense that at one point during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, they got into a hallway push-and-shove match that nearly turned into a fistfight. Cohn also liked to identify as his chief tormentor Robert Morgenthau, then the United States Attorney in Manhattan, the son of Henry M. Morgenthau, the Treasury Secretary in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration. He maintained that Robert Morgenthau bore a "mortal grudge" against him because, during his McCarthy days, he "exposed" Henry Morgenthau's decision to allow the Soviet Union to use United States-occupation currency plates briefly at the end of World War II.
Senator Joseph McCarthy
The McCarthy subcommittee then turned to the overseas library program of the International Information Agency. Cohn toured Europe examining the card catalogs of the State Department libraries looking for works by authors he deemed inappropriate. McCarthy then recited the list of supposedly pro-communist authors before his subcommittee and the press. The State Department bowed to McCarthy and ordered its overseas librarians to remove from their shelves "material by any controversial persons, Communists, fellow travelers, etc." Some libraries actually burned the newly forbidden books. Shortly after this, in one of his carefully oblique public criticisms of McCarthy, President Eisenhower urged Americans: "Don't join the book burners ... Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book."
Early in 1954, the U.S. Army accused McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, of improperly pressuring the Army to give favorable treatment to G. David Schine, a former aide to McCarthy and a friend of Cohn's, who was then serving in the Army as a private. McCarthy claimed that the accusation was made in bad faith, in retaliation for his questioning of Zwicker the previous year. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, usually chaired by McCarthy himself, was given the task of adjudicating these conflicting charges. Republican Senator Karl Mundt was appointed to chair the committee, and the Army–McCarthy hearings convened on April 22, 1954.
The hearings lasted for 36 days and were broadcast on live television by ABC and DuMont, with an estimated 20 million viewers. After hearing 32 witnesses and two million words of testimony, the committee concluded that McCarthy himself had not exercised any improper influence on Schine's behalf, but that Cohn had engaged in "unduly persistent or aggressive efforts". The committee also concluded that Army Secretary Robert Stevens and Army Counsel John Adams "made efforts to terminate or influence the investigation and hearings at Fort Monmouth", and that Adams "made vigorous and diligent efforts" to block subpoenas for members of the Army Loyalty and Screening Board "by means of personal appeal to certain members of the [McCarthy] committee".
Of far greater importance to McCarthy than the committee's inconclusive final report was the negative effect that the extensive exposure had on his popularity. Many in the audience saw him as bullying, reckless, and dishonest, and the daily newspaper summaries of the hearings were also frequently unfavorable. Late in the hearings, Senator Stuart Symington made an angry and prophetic remark to McCarthy: "The American people have had a look at you for six weeks," he said. "You are not fooling anyone." In Gallup polls of January 1954, 50% of those polled had a positive opinion of McCarthy. In June, that number had fallen to 34%. In the same polls, those with a negative opinion of McCarthy increased from 29% to 45%. He was censured by the Senate in December of 1954. McCarthy's biographers agree that he was a changed man after the censure; declining both physically and emotionally, he became a "pale ghost of his former self" in the words of Fred J. Cook.
This was, then, the man that I rode the trolley with in the Spring of 1957. It was reported that McCarthy suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and was frequently hospitalized for alcoholism. Numerous eyewitnesses, including Senate aide George Reedy and journalist Tom Wicker, have reported finding him alarmingly drunk in the Senate. Journalist Richard Rovere (1959) wrote:
He had always been a heavy drinker, and there were times in those seasons of discontent when he drank more than ever. But he was not always drunk. He went on the wagon (for him this meant beer instead of whiskey) for days and weeks at a time. The difficulty toward the end was that he couldn't hold the stuff. He went to pieces on his second or third drink. And he did not snap back quickly.
For some time opponents of McCarthy had been accumulating evidence concerning his homosexual activities. Several members of his staff, including Roy Cohn and David Schine, were also suspected of having a sexual relationship. Although well-known by political journalists, the first article about it did not appear until Hank Greenspun published an article in the Las Vegas Sun in 25th October, 1952. Greenspun wrote that: "It is common talk among homosexuals in Milwaukee who rendezvous in the White Horse Inn that Senator Joe McCarthy has often engaged in homosexual activities."
McCarthy considered a libel suit against Greenspun but decided against it when he was told by his lawyers that if the case went ahead he would have to take the witness stand and answer questions about his sexuality. In an attempt to stop the rumors circulating, McCarthy married his secretary, Jeannie Kerr. Later the couple adopted a five-week old girl from the New York Foundling Home.
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