Adam Clayton Powell Jr., The First Black Person Elected to Congress

November 25, 2017

adam-clayton-powell-jrAdam 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 from New York of African American descent to be elected to Congress, and he 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-elect of the 90th Congress, but he was re-elected and regained the seat in a 1969 United States Supreme Court ruling in Powell v. McCormack.

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). They and ancestors were classified as mulatto in 19th-century censuses; Powell’s paternal grandmother’s side had been free for generations before the Civil War. By 1908, Powell Sr. had served as a pastor in Philadelphia and was the lead pastor at a Baptist church in New Haven.

Powell Sr. became a prominent Baptist minister. He worked his way out of poverty and through Wayland Seminary, a historically black college, and 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; he led the church for decades, and directed an addition to accommodate the increased membership of the congregation during the years of the Great Migration. It grew to a community of 10,000.

Due to his father’s achievements, Powell grew up in a wealthy household in New York City. With hazel eyes, fair skin and straight hair, he could pass for white, but he did not play with that identity until college. 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. For a time, Powell briefly passed as white, taking advantage of his appearance to escape racial strictures at college. The other black students were dismayed to discover what he had done. Encouraged by his father to become a minister, Powell got more serious about his studies at Colgate; he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1930. He also earned an M.A. in religious education from Columbia University in 1931. He became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity started by and for blacks.

Apparently later trying to bolster his black identity, Powell told stories of his paternal grandparents being born to slavery. But, his paternal grandmother, Sally Dunning, was born as at least the third generation of free people of color; in the 1860 census, she is listed as a free mulatto, along with her mother, grandmother, and siblings. Sally never identified the father of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., born 1865. She appeared to have named him after her older brother Adam Dunning, listed on the 1860 census as the head of their household and a farmer. In 1867 Sally Dunning married Anthony Bush, a mulatto freedman. Adam and his family members used the surname Dunning in 1870.

Before 1880, the family had changed its surname to Powell when they moved to Kanawha County, West Virginia. It was also adopted by his wife, stepson Adam, and their children. His mother’s parents, also mixed race, were slaves freed after the American Civil War. Powell’s parents married in West Virginia, where they met. Numerous freedmen had migrated there in the late 19th century for work.

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 in Harlem, New York. 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.

For instance, during the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Powell organized a picket line at the Fair’s offices in the Empire State Building; as a result, the number of black employees was increased from about 200 to 732. In 1941, he led a bus boycott in Harlem; the Transit Authority hired 200 black workers and set the precedent for more. Powell also led a fight to have drugstores operating in Harlem to hire black pharmacists, and encouraged residents to shop where blacks were hired to work.

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,” and 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.”[12]

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 took black constituents to dine with him in the “Whites Only” House restaurant. He clashed with the many segregationists in his party. Since the late 19th century, Southern Democrats commanded a one-party system in most of the South, as they had effectively disfranchised most blacks from voting after regaining power in the late 19th century. 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 William Levi Dawson, 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 would later become integrated into Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Powell was willing to act independently; in 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 candidate, threatened to accuse Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. of having a homosexual relationship with Bayard Rustin unless the marches were cancelled. Bayard was one of King’s political advisers and an openly gay man. 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 them sought neutrality between the United States and the Soviet Union. He 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. Powell returned to the United States to a warm bipartisan reception for his performance and 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 United States 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 House 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 May 18, 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. He responded,

“I wish to state very emphatically,” he said once when under attack for personal conduct (he had taken two young women at government expense with him on overseas travel) by Congress and the press, “that I will always do just what every other Congressman and committee chairman has done and is doing and will do.”[12]

Opponents led criticism in his District, where his refusal to pay a 1963 slander judgment made him subject to arrest. He 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 day of March in my opinion, 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. He sued in Powell v. McCormack 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.[18] In June 1969, in Powell v. McCormack, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell, a duly elected member.[19]

Powell’s increasing absenteeism was noted by his constituents. 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 2013, Rangel continues to represent the district, having been repeatedly re-elected.

In 1933, Powell married Isabel Washington, an African-American singer and nightclub entertainer who was also of mixed race. She was the sister of actress Fredi Washington. Powell adopted her son Preston, from her first marriage.

After their divorce, in 1945 Powell married the singer Hazel Scott. They had a son, Adam Clayton Powell III. He became Vice Provost for Globalization at the University of Southern California.

Powell divorced again, and in 1960 married Yvette Flores Diago from Puerto Rico. They had a son, whom he also named Adam Clayton Powell, adding Diago to show the mother’s surname, in the tradition of some Latino cultures. In 1980, this son changed his name to Adam Clayton Powell IV, dropping Diago, when he moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico to attend Howard University. (This has caused confusion as his half-nephew, 8 years younger than he, was also named Adam Clayton Powell IV.) He later became a politician in New York.

A. C. Powell IV (Diago’s son) was elected to the New York City Council in 1991 in a special election; he served for two terms. He also was elected as a New York state Assemblyman (D-East Harlem) for three terms. He named his son Adam Clayton Powell V. In the 2010 Democratic primary election, A. C. Powell IV unsuccessfully challenged the incumbent Charles B. Rangel for the Democratic candidacy in his father’s Congressional District.

In 1967, a U.S. Congressional committee subpoenaed Yvette Diago, the former third wife of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and the mother of Adam Clayton Powell IV. They were investigating potential “theft of state funds” related to her having been on Powell, Jr.’s payroll but doing no work. Yvette Diago admitted to the committee that she had been on the Congressional payroll of her former husband, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., from 1961 until 1967, although she had moved back to Puerto Rico in 1961. As reported by Time Magazine, Yvette Diago had continued living in Puerto Rico and “performed no work at all,” yet was kept on the payroll. Her salary was increased to $20,578 and she was paid until January 1967, when she was exposed and fired.

In April 1972, Powell became gravely ill and was flown to a Miami hospital from his home in Bimini. He died there on April 4, 1972, at the age of 63, from acute prostatitis, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. After his funeral at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York City, his son Adam III poured his ashes from a plane over the waters of his beloved Bimini.

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  1. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is no doubt an extraordinary figure in the cause of civil and human rights. His wayward commitment and resilience toward ensuring equality for all Americans places him among distinguished giants credited for paving the way for America to become a democratized nation. Such recognition of his accomplishments is well deserving for this tireless warrior.

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