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Adam Clayton Powell Edit Profile

congressman , minister , pastor

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a Baptist pastor and an American politician, who represented Harlem, New York City, in the United States House of Representatives (1945–71). He was the first person of African-American descent to be elected from New York to Congress. Oscar Stanton De Priest of Illinois was the first black person to be elected to Congress in the 20th century; Powell was the fourth.

Background

Powell was born on November 29, 1908 in New Haven, Connecticut, United States, the second child and only son of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Mattie Buster Shaffer.

Education

He attended City College of New York; graduated from Colgate University, 1930; attended Union Theological Seminary; Columbia University, M. A. in 1932.

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.

Powell had dropped out of Union Seminary in 1930, but when his father retired in 1937 he took over Abyssinian.

Career

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. , was one of the earliest and loudest black voices in the American civil rights movement.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Powell’s absenteeism from Congress and what some called his egocentrism and arrogance increasingly frustrated his supporters.

He campaigned for Eisenhower in 1956, and this resulted in a feud with some Democrats who hoped to deprive Powell of his seniority.

In 1967 the House voted to exclude him from his seat.

Charging that such action would never have been taken against a white man, Powell filed a federal suit.

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.

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.

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.

By most accounts he was at first a very responsible committee chair and delegated

responsibilitty 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 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.

He retired from the pastorate in 1971 and spent his remaining days at Bimini in the Bahamas.

Achievements

  • 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.

Politics

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.

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. ”

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.

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.

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.

Connections

In 1933, Powell married Isabel Washington, an African-American singer. Powell adopted her son Preston, from her first marriage.

After their divorce, in 1945 Powell married the singer Hazel Scott. They had a son named Adam Clayton Powell III

Powell divorced again, and in 1960 married Yvette Flores Diago from Puerto Rico. They had a son, whom they named Adam Clayton Powell Diago

wife:
Hazel Scott

wife:
Izabel Washington

Tthere were tensions in the marriage— Powell’s obvious romantic interest in jazz pianist Hazel Scott.