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Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

(1908—1972)


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(b. New Haven, Connecticut, 29 Nov. 1908; d. Miami, Florida, 4 Apr. 1972)

US; member of the US House of Representatives 1945–66, 1969–70 Although Adam Clayton Powell was to become a flamboyant figure in black politics, he was descended from a white slave-owner on his father's side, was part-Cherokee Indian, and looked white. Powell grew up in New York where his father, a minister, built up the Harlem Abyssinian Baptist church into one of the largest black churches in the country. Educated at Colgate University and Columbia, Powell succeeded his father as minister at Abyssinian Baptist in 1931, where he organized relief programmes during the Depression.

In 1941 Powell was elected to the New York City Council and he built up a solid following in Harlem, where he led the militant People's Committee and also edited a weekly newspaper. In 1945 he was elected to the House of Representatives for New York's 19th District, which had the almost exclusively black Harlem at its core but which later took in parts of the affluent white Upper West Side. Powell was the first black to be elected to Congress from the East Coast and became a national celebrity in the twenty-five years he represented the district. An independent black determined to fight for racial justice, in his early years in Congress he sponsored a range of measures designed to remove segregation from American life. Between 1960 and 1967 he exercised real legislative influence as seniority brought him the chairmanship of the Education and Labour Committee and control over the range of anti-poverty programmes. He used his position to shape more than fifty pieces of reforming social legislation, including the 1961 Minimum Wage Bill.

Yet Powell's position was never entirely comfortable either in the black community or in Congress. Many blacks regarded him as arrogant and egocentric. He had always been seen as something of a maverick by the Democratic Party: in 1956 he voted for Eisenhower as President over Adlai Stevenson, a move which angered his party colleagues. He had a high absentee rate in Congress. And his personal life was more akin to that of a playboy than a serious politician.

In 1967 the House voted to exclude him from Congress following his attempt to evade a court judgment in a libel suit and allegations of the misuse of his staff payroll. He was re-elected in a special election but did not immediately attempt to reclaim the seat. He was re-elected again in 1968 and the House voted to reinstate him though it imposed a fine and a loss of seniority. (In 1969 the Supreme Court found his original exclusion from the House had been unconstitutional.) Although apparently vindicated, Powell's political career was gravely damaged. By 1969 Powell, who had also been suffering from cancer, seemed on the verge of retirement. Yet he decided to run again in 1970 despite strong opposition. In the Democratic primary in 1970, Charles Rangel, a black New York Assemblyman and former Powell supporter, narrowly defeated Powell. An attempt to get the primary declared invalid failed and Powell's political career ended. He died two years later.

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Subjects: Politics — United States History.


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