Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr.


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Response

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."

Principal Works

Marching Blacks: An Interpretive History of the Rise of the Black Common Man (essays) 1945; revised edition, 1973
The New Image in Education: A Prospectus for the Future by the Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor (essays) 1962
Keep the Faith, Baby! (sermons) 1967
Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (autobiography) 1971


Frank S. Adams (review date 3 February 1946)

SOURCE: "A Spokesman for the 'New Negro'," in The New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1946, p. 3.

[In the following review, Adams relates Powell's political aims and beliefs as expressed in Marching Blacks.]

As a boy of 10, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. stood on a chair and traced on his grandfather's back the P branded into his flesh in the days of slavery. It left him with a fierce resolve not to rest until he had wiped that brand from his memory, and from the conscience of white America. This angry volume [Marching Blacks], which he calls "An Interpretive History of the Black Common Man," is dedicated to that purpose.

"I am a radical and a...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)

H. A. Overstreet (review date 9 February 1946)

SOURCE: "Striding Down Freedom Road," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 6, February 9, 1946, pp. 34, 36.

[Overstreet was an American critic and educator who frequently wrote on political and educational concerns. In the following review of Marching Blacks, he praises the work as a "fighting book."]

[Marching Blacks] is a fighting book—a non-violent fighting book. It is also a victory book, for there are in its pages no doubts about the outcome. The marching blacks are marching—and the direction is not back to slavery.

On December 7, 1941 [writes Congressman Powell] America for the first time in...

(The entire section is 924 words.)

E. Franklin Frazier (review date 16 February 1946)

SOURCE: "The Black Common Man," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 162, No. 7, February 16, 1946, pp. 201-02.

[An American educator and nonfiction writer, Frazier was a noted expert on race. In addition to studying conditions in Harlem after the race riots of 1935, he served as president of the International Society for the Scientific Study of Race Relations as well as chairman of UNESCO's Committee of Experts on Race. In the following mixed review of Marching Blacks, he considers Powell's work to be "an effective piece" of motivational writing, but asserts that it is personally indulgent and contains numerous errors.]

In Marching Blacks Representative Adam...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Roy Wilkins (review date 17 February 1946)

SOURCE: "Joshua of West 138th St.," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, February 17, 1946, p. 10.

[Wilkins was an American critic, editor, and journalist. The editor of the Kansas City Call and Crisis, Wilkins held numerous executive positions in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Honored for his work as a civil and human rights activist on various occasions, he received the NAACP's Springarn Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In the following review, he considers Marching Blacks to be an important book offering insights into political militancy in African-American life.]

The principal...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

David Poling (review date 22 April 1967)

SOURCE: "Powell in the Pulpit," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. L, No. 16, April 22, 1967, pp. 86, 89-90.

[Poling is an American minister and editor who frequently writes on religious topics. In the following excerpt, he offers a mixed review of Keep the Faith, Baby!, praising Powell's ability to write terse, topical sermons, but suggesting that Powell plagiarized material from noted sermon writers.]

Adam Clayton Powell has successfully mixed politics and religion for the last twenty-five years. Although the House of Representatives has derailed his political career momentarily, the role of preacher is as strong as ever. Keep the Faith, Baby! is a...

(The entire section is 2109 words.)

Clifford W. Edwards (review date October 1967)

SOURCE: A review of Keep the Faith, Baby, in Negro History Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 6, October, 1967, pp. 22-3.

[In the review below, Edwards faults Keep the Faith, Baby! as "rather colorless and ineffectual."]

A book of sermons by a key figure in the controversies and achievements of an era might well promise to provide an excellent sourcebook for church historians. Many may therefore look with expectancy to this collection.

Unfortunately, in spite of some attempts at relevancy, Keep the Faith, Baby, is a rather colorless, conservative, and ordinary sampling of sermons.

Most of the 42 sermons included were preached by Adam Clayton...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

Martin Kilson (review date 7 November 1971)

SOURCE: A review of Adam by Adam, in The New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1971, pp. 4, 16, 18.

[An educator and critic, Kilson is author of Political Change in a West African State (1966). In the following review, he argues that Powell does not assess himself rigorously enough in Adam by Adam.]

(The entire section is 1684 words.)

The New Yorker (review date 13 November 1971)

SOURCE: A review of Adam by Adam, in The New Yorker, Vol. XLVII, No. 39, November 13, 1971, 1971, pp. 202-03.

[In the following excerpt, the critic offers a brief review of Adam by Adam.]

[Adam by Adam is an] impenitent apologia by the energetic, flamboyant former congressman from New York. Mr. Powell insists that the various moves against him were retaliation for his pertinacious pursuit of racial equality—a plausible point, inasmuch as the actions, including a suit by the Internal Revenue Service and the House of Representatives' refusal to seat him, were not sustained. And there is no question but that the style of Negro leadership throughout most of...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

David M. Oshinsky (review date 7 February 1972)

SOURCE: "Monument to an Enormous Ego," in The New Leader, Vol. LV, No. 3, February 7, 1972, pp. 20-1.

[In the following review, Oshinsky laments Powell's lack of analysis and introspection in Adam by Adam.]

How could it possibly miss? The autobiography of America's most visceral black leader—the man who exhorted others to "tell it like it is." With his health failing and his public career now behind him, Adam Powell would finally let us know how one man could, with such instinctive virtuosity, play the diverse (and often conflicting) roles of super playboy, Baptist minister, political huckster, progressive reformer, Harlem aristocrat, and militant "street nigger."...

(The entire section is 1326 words.)

Charles V. Hamilton (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Harlem: A Report to the Mayor and Advice from a Columnist," in Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma, Atheneum, 1991, pp. 55-69.

[An American educator, nonfiction writer, and biographer, Hamilton frequently writes on twentieth-century political and social issues, particularly as they relate to race. In the excerpt below, he discusses Powell's work as a newspaper columnist in the late 1930s.]

[Following his highly visible and apparently well-received articles in the New York Post, Powell] began a weekly column in the Amsterdam News in February 1936, entitled "The Soap Box." Harlem's readers, as well as...

(The entire section is 1511 words.)

Further Reading


Brooks, Albert N. D. "Profile of a Fighter." The Negro History Bulletin XX, No. 8 (May 1957): 170, 191.

Brief sketch of Powell highlighting his educational, political, and personal achievements. Brooks asserts: "In spite of his detractors [Powell's] record of public service suggests that personal gain has not been a major objective in his life."

Capeci, Dominic J. "From Different Liberal Perspectives: Fiorello H. La Guardia, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Civil Rights in New York City, 1941–1943." The Journal of Negro History LXII, No. 2 (April 1977): 160-73.


(The entire section is 462 words.)