Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. 1908–1972
American orator, autobiographer, sermonist, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Powell's career.
A politician, church leader, key figure in the civil rights movement, and African-American militant, Powell made many advances in the struggle for racial equality. He was the first black member of the House of Representatives from the eastern United States, yet his career was often overshadowed by scandal. Powell's literary works, though not particularly well-known, illuminate a tumultuous period in American history, and offer insights into the views and beliefs of an important political leader.
Powell was born in New Haven, Connecticut. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to New York City, where his father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was made pastor of the influential Abyssinian Baptist Church. During the Depression the younger Powell became known as an activist, leading a series of demonstrations against department stores, bus lines, hospitals, utility companies, and other business enterprises in Harlem, and forcing them to hire black employees. Powell also organized social welfare programs at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, including a vocational guidance clinic as well as a soup kitchen and a relief operation that supplied food, clothing, and fuel for thousands of Harlem residents. These deeds, his eventual position as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and his work as a newspaper columnist for the Amsterdam News increased Powell's popularity and recognition. He subsequently ran successful campaigns for the New York City Council in 1941, and, four years later, for the United States House of Representatives. As a congressman, Powell continued his fight against racial discrimination; he frequently debated with Southern segregationists, challenged discrimination in the armed forces, and drafted the Powell Amendment—an attempt to deny federal funds to projects that tolerated discrimination. Crusading for a variety of causes, Powell additionally fought for the admission of black journalists to the congressional press galleries and brought the discriminatory practices of such groups as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to the attention of Congress. As chairperson of the House Committee on Education and Labor, a position that made him perhaps the most powerful African American in the country, Powell had an extraordinary legislative record, pushing through nearly fifty major pieces of social legislation, including the 1961 Minimum Wage Bill, the Manpower Development and Training Act, the Anti-Poverty Bill, the Juvenile Delinquency Act, and the National Defense Edu-cational Act. Powell's political successes, however, often bred contempt among his white colleagues. His record of high absenteeism brought him severe censure from fellow legislators as did ethical and legal controversies concerning possible tax evasion and junketeering. Accused of misusing public funds by employing a receptionist with whom he was personally involved, and convicted of criminal contempt by avoiding arrest in a slander suit, Powell became the subject of a House investigation committee and was expelled from Congress in 1967. After winning a bitter battle over his expulsion—which the Supreme Court eventually deemed unconstitutional—Powell returned to Capitol Hill in January 1969, only to lose his seat in congressional elections held later that year. He died shortly thereafter at his home on the Bahamian island of Bimini.
Powell's works were often as controversial as his life. In Marching Blacks (1945)—which he termed "an interpretive history of the rise of the black common man"—he wrote about race relations in the United States, warning that "blacks would not stop until a people's democracy is born out of the rotten, decaying political life of America." Furthermore, Powell advocated in this work the migration of millions of African Americans to the North and West as "the only answer to the South's inhumanity to man." Another work by Powell, a collection of sermons entitled Keep the Faith, Baby! (1967), is seen by some critics and scholars as a foundational text for the Black Power movement. In this work Powell promoted the principles of black self-reliance, claiming that there can be "no better world … until [the Negro] refuses to drink any more of the poisons of [white] civilization." Powell's final work, the autobiography Adam by Adam (1971), offers personal thoughts and reflections on his political and theological careers as well as his lifelong struggle to end racial discrimination.
On a political level, Powell was often berated by critics for the very flamboyance and pomp that helped establish his career. As a writer, he has likewise been subjected to criticism, and his works are often faulted for a perceived lack of factual or artistic authenticity. E. Franklin Frazier, for example, found Marching Blacks to be "marred by a number of glaring errors" and possessing "unwarranted interpretations of historical facts," but noted that the book was written "undoubtedly, to spur the Negro to continue his fight for freedom, and as such, it is an effective piece of writing." Although Keep the Faith, Baby! has received similar praise, Powell's homilies have been severely criticized for their close similarities to other famous sermons. Also coming under attack were the social solutions presented in Keep the Faith, Baby!, regarded by Clifford W. Edwards as "colorless and conservative preaching," particularly when compared to the ideas of such noted African-American leaders as Malcolm X. Adam by Adam has been faulted for its lack of introspection. Nevertheless, critics continue to note the historical importance of Powell's writings. Martin Kilson has argued that Powell was "a discerning observer of American politics, both at the city and national levels, as well as of the pattern of cruel defeats and frustrations that surround the life of the ghetto Negro."