King of the Cats

“King of the Cats” is a strange but apt appellation for this minister/civil rights activist who fleetingly in the mid-1960’s was one of America’s most powerful legislators. Regal at 6’4” and leonine in clerical robes that billowed as if a little fan were inside, he reveled in his clout as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor during the heyday of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, brazenly junketing to Paris fleshpots with beauty queens in tow. “I thought you were a man of the cloth,” someone once asked him. “I am,” he replied. “Silk.”

A political animal as vain as LBJ, as flamboyant as fellow Harlem Representatives Fiorello LaGuardia and Vito Marcantonio, and as rakish and demagogic as Louisiana’s “Kingfish” Huey P. Long, Powell consummately played the roles of charming rascal and acerbic critic of racism, not bothering, loner that he was, to hide his contempt for cautious contemporaries. So light-skinned he had blond curls as a child and passed for white as an incoming freshman at Colgate, he came to embrace black pride a fiercely as the “new breed of cats” who succeeded him. Despite his cynicism and larger-than-life playboy persona, he cared about the poor black folk whose adulation he received (a man like him comes along once in a lifetime, one woman exclaimed).

Author Wil Haygood provides too little coverage (only four pages) of the pre-World War II boycotts that, thanks to Powell’s leadership, led to many job openings for his constituents. Regarding the charges which led the House of Representatives to strip Powell of his power, Haygood does not examine the evidence in sufficient detail to allow the reader to know whether or not Powell was railroaded. Nonetheless, while Haygood’s book would have been stronger with a clear interpretive framework, it is a very pleasurable read.