Adam Clayton Powell–A major African American leader

by Wornie Reed, Ph.D.
Director, Race and Social Policy, Professor, Sociology & Africana Studies, Virginia Tech

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was one of the most important figures in African American life in the twentieth century, yet he is not well known to many black or white Americans today. He was a major civil rights leader, and arguably the most powerful African American politician of the century. He was a very bright star whose flame went out in the early 1970’s, and now he is forgotten.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1908, the son of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., then a Baptist minister in New Haven and his wife, Mattie Buster Shaffer. That same year the family moved to New York City, as Powell, Sr., became pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church. By 1930, the church had 13,000 members, making it the largest Baptist congregation in the country. Powell, Jr., obtained a bachelors degree from Colgate University in 1930 and a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1932. He studied for the ministry and obtained a doctor of divinity degree from Shaw University in 1935. As heir-apparent, he succeeded his father as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1937.

Upon his return to Harlem from Colgate in 1930 Powell launched a career of agitation for civil rights, jobs, and housing for African Americans. He organized mass meetings, rent strikes, and public campaigns that forced restaurants, bus lines, utilities, telephone companies, Harlem Hospital, and others to change their practices. At the time stores in Harlem were owned by whites who did not hire blacks. So he led demonstrations against department stores under the slogan, “Don’t shop where you can’t work.” They boycotted until stores changed their practices. The charismatic minister helped place blacks in Harlem in hundreds of white-collar jobs.

Powell’s community activism led him to run and win a seat in the New York City Council in 1941. Three years later he won the seat in the new 22nd Congressional district, becoming the first Black Congressman from the state of New York. He joined William Dawson of Chicago as the only African Americans in Congress. At times Powell seemed to be the only one as the moderate Dawson seldom rocked the boat.

After 15 years in the House of Representatives, Powell finally became a committee chairperson when in 1961 he became the Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Under his leadership, the committee authorized more significant legislation than any other committee. This included 48 major pieces of social legislation, embodying President John Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. Both presidents sent Powell letters of thanks.

Some of his greatest work involved passing legislation to protect the rights of African Americans, particularly those affected by Jim Crow laws in the south, e.g., bills to criminalize lynching, enhance public school desegregation, and to abolish the Southern practice of charging a poll tax for Black voters. Powell was famous for attaching the “Powell Amendment” to every bill that came before his committee. The Amendment called for discontinuance of federal funds to any organization which practiced racial discrimination. As chairperson, he had the power to block legislation. So he occasionally held up bills until the Powell Amendment was included.

The breadth of Powell’s prominence and influence in the black struggle may be captured in two events. First was civil rights leaders in Montgomery requesting Powell to come and show them how to do a boycott of the city buses just before Rosa Parks’ actions led to the famous boycott. The other action was Powell, using his position as chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, calling together a group of leaders from across the country to promote Black Power as a movement and to plan a series of conferences. He was a bigger than life figure.

The debonair minister/politician made many enemies in Congress with his persistent pushing for civil rights, and he provided ammunition which they readily used against him. In 1966-7 his colleagues in the House of Representatives censured him, stripped him of his seniority, and eventually voted him out of office. The charge was using federal funds to take women staffers on trips and vacations with him, keying on one employee, in particular, a former Miss Ohio, who did not seem to have a real set of tasks in his office. He was voted back into office in 1968, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the House acted unconstitutionally when they unseated Powell. Voted out of office in 1970 he retired to Bimini, an island in the Bahamas off the coast of Florida.

In April 1972, in his self-imposed exile in Bimini, Powell’s health faltered, and he was rushed from Bimini to a hospital in Miami, where he died from acute prostatitis. Public schools have been named after him as has an office building in Harlem, and there is an Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Boulevard in Harlem. His real legacy, however, is his “sassiness” as a confident political figure in an era when many African Americans were reluctant to speak out against the racism they saw.