Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a prominent African American congressman, serving his district in New York City's Harlem neighborhood from 1945 to 1970. A flamboyant and often controversial political figure, Powell played a key role in passing many federal education and social welfare programs in the 1960s. Near the end of his tenure, however, Powell was embroiled with the House of Representatives over alleged ethical lapses.
Powell was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on November 29, 1908. When he was less than a year old, his father moved the family to New York City's Harlem neighborhood to accept the ministry at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The church, which was a hundred years old, expanded under the elder Powell's leadership, in time becoming one of the largest congregations in the United States.
Powell graduated from Colgate University in 1930 and received a master of arts degree in religious education from Columbia University in 1931. He served as assistant minister and business manager of the Abyssinian Church in 1930 and succeeded his father as minister in 1936. He remained minister of the church for thirty-five years.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Powell acted aggressively to address racial and social injustice in New York City. In 1930 he organized picket lines and mass meetings to demand reform of Harlem Hospital, which had fired five African American doctors because of their race. Powell also used the church as an instrument of social welfare, distributing food, clothing, and temporary jobs to thousands of Harlem's destitute residents.
Powell soon was recognized as a charismatic CIVIL RIGHTS leader, adept at forcing restaurants, retail stores, bus companies, utilities, and phone companies either to hire or begin promoting African American employees. He transferred his efforts into the political arena in 1941, when he was elected as an independent to the New York City Council. During WORLD WAR II he worked for the New York State Office of Price Administration and the Manhattan Civilian Defense, as well as publishing a weekly newspaper, The People's Voice.
In 1944 he was elected as a Democrat to Congress, representing the Twenty-second (later Eighteenth) District. In 1947 he took a seat on the Education and Labor Committee, which was to become the base of his power and prestige. During the 1940s and 1950s, Powell challenged racial SEGREGATION in and out of the halls of Congress. He took black constituents to the House dining room that had been informally restricted to white representatives. He introduced legislation to outlaw LYNCHING and to ban discrimination in the armed forces, housing, transportation, and employment. He became famous for attaching an antidiscrimination amendment to many pieces of legislation. The so-called Powell Amendment was always unsuccessful, but it was a way to raise the issue of racial inequality before a House that was generally hostile to Powell's stand on civil rights.
His frustration at the Democratic Party's reluctance to move forward on civil rights led him in 1956 to endorse Republican President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER for a second term. New York City DEMOCRATIC PARTY leaders were outraged at this act of disloyalty and waged a hard-fought campaign to defeat him in the 1958 primary election. Powell's loyal Harlem constituents rebuffed this effort.
In 1961 Powell became chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor. He proved to be an effective, if at times difficult, point man for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. More than fifty pieces of major legislation were passed out of Powell's committee, including the school lunch program, education and training for the deaf, student loan programs, vocational training, and MINIMUM WAGE increases. Powell was instrumental in passing legislation to aid elementary and secondary education.
By 1966, however, Powell had alienated many House members because of his poor management of the committee budget, numerous and well-publicized government-funded trips abroad, and excessive absenteeism. These congressional problems were compounded by problems in his private life. Powell, despite being a minister, liked the high life. Married three times and attached to other women, he enjoyed his playboy image. Many members of Congress were shocked by this attitude.
More seriously, Powell had been charged with income TAX EVASION in 1958, but the trial ended in a hung jury. In 1960 he appeared on a New York City television show and lambasted POLICE CORRUPTION. He had previously charged on the floor of the House that a constituent, Esther James, worked for ORGANIZED CRIME in Harlem. Statements made on the House floor are covered by congressional IMMUNITY, and Powell knew he could not be sued for slander. On the television show he repeated his charge and labeled James a Mafia "bag woman."
James proceeded to sue Powell, setting in motion a chain of legal and political misfortunes for him. After James won her slander suit and obtained damages of $46,000, Powell refused to pay the judgment. He also ignored subpoenas to appear and explain his financial records. Finally the court issued two civil CONTEMPT arrest warrants for his recalcitrance.
After the warrants were issued, Powell would only return to his Harlem district to preach on Sundays, when it was illegal to serve a civil contempt warrant. The trial court then imposed a thirty-day jail sentence for failing to appear. On appeal, the New York state appellate court allowed Powell more time to comply with the subpoena but agreed with the trial court that Powell's jail sentence was not barred by congressional immunity (James v. Powell, 26 A.D. 2d 295, 274 N.Y.S. 2d 192 ). Powell was not to settle the case with James until 1969.
The James episode and allegations of congressional misconduct led the House to strip
Powell of his committee chair in January 1967. In addition, the full House refused to seat him until the Judiciary Committee completed its investigation of his affairs. In February 1967 the committee recommended that Powell be censured, fined, and deprived of seniority. The full House disagreed, voting 307 to 116 to exclude him from Congress. Powell then ran in the special election to fill his vacant seat. When he won in April, he refused to take his seat. He ran again in the November 1968 election and was reelected. This time the House seated him but denied him his seniority. Powell refused to take his seat under this condition.
Following his exclusion in 1967, Powell filed a lawsuit against the House of Representatives, arguing that the House had no constitutional basis for excluding him. Typically federal courts do not entertain such lawsuits, because they deal with matters constitutionally delegated to the legislative branch. Although it appeared Powell's lawsuit was barred by the "political question" doctrine, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided that it could intervene. In Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 89 S. Ct. 1944, 23 L. Ed. 2d 491 (1969), the Court held that the House of Representatives could not exclude Powell, a duly elected member, who met all the constitutional qualifications of age, citizenship, and residence prescribed by the Constitution.
Powell took his House seat after the Supreme Court decision, but he lost his twenty-two years of seniority. His victory was short-lived. He lost in the June 1970 primary election and failed to get on the ballot as an independent. He retired as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1971 and died in Miami, Florida, on April 4, 1972.