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. 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 1970s and now he’s being forgotten.
Powell was born in 1908, the son of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., a Baptist minister and his wife Mattie Buster Shaffer. Soon after, the family moved to Harlem as Powell, Sr., became pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church. By 1930, the church, with 13,000 members, was the largest Baptist congregation in the world. Powell, Jr., received degrees from Colgate University and Columbia University and studied ministry at Shaw University. He succeeded his father as pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1937.
Upon returning to Harlem from Colgate in 1930, he launched a career of agitation for civil rights, jobs, and housing for African Americans, organizing mass meetings, rent strikes, and public campaigns that forced restaurants, bus lines, utilities, telephone companies, the Harlem Hospital, and others to change their practices. Stores in Harlem tended then to be 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 placed Harlem Blacks in hundreds of white-collar jobs.
His community activism led him to win a seat in the New York City Council in 1941. Three years later he became the first Black congressman from the state of New York, joining William Dawson of Chicago as the only African Americans in Congress, although the moderate Dawson seldom rocked the boat.
Powell became a committee chairperson in 1961 for the House Education and Labor Committee. Under his leadership, there were 48 major pieces of social legislation, more pieces of important legislation than any other committee, embodying President John Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. Both presidents thanked Powell.
Some of his greatest works involved passing legislation to protect the rights of African Americans (negating Jim Crow laws): bills to criminalize lynching, enhance public school desegregation, and abolish the practice of charging a poll tax to Black voters. Powell attached the Powell Amendment to every bill that came before his committee, calling for a discontinuance of federal funds to any organization which practiced racial discrimination, occasionally holding up bills until the Powell Amendment was included.
The debonair minister/politician made many enemies in Congress with his persistent pushing for civil rights, and he gave them ammunition which they readily used against him. In 1966-67 his House colleagues censured him, stripped him of his seniority, and he was eventually voted out of office. The charge was using federal funds to take women staffers on trips and vacations with him, keying on one 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 in the Bahamas.
In 1972, 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 for 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 afraid to speak out against the racism and poverty that they saw.
Wornie Reed, PhD, is professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, and director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech. He previously developed and directed social science research centers at three other universities and led the National Congress of Black Faculty and the National Association of Black Sociologists. Honors and awards include two Regional Television Emmys for his work with Public Health Television, Inc., on the Urban Cancer Project, which produced television shows on cancer prevention aimed at African Americans on cancer prevention. www.worniereed-whatthedatasay.com
This article is reprinted from the Legacy Special Edition of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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