The Reverend and Hon. Mr. Adam 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 of African-American descent elected to Congress from New York. In 1961, after sixteen years in the House, he became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. As Chairman, he supported the passage of important social legislation but was removed from his seat by Democratic Representatives-elect of the 90th Congress following allegations of corruption.
Powell was born in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was a Baptist minister and pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.
Powell attended Townsend Harris High School. As an undergraduate, he studied at the City College of New York and Colgate University. In 1931, he received a Master of Arts in religious education from Columbia University. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Learn more about Adam Clayton Powell Jr., free from the United States House of Representatives.
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 housing. As chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Employment, he organized mass meetings, rent strikes, and public campaigns forcing companies and utilities and Harlem Hospital to hire black workers. 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, a bus boycott led to the hiring of 200 black workers by the Transit Authority, and Powell led a fight to have drugstores in Harlem hire Negro pharmacists.
In 1937, 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, he 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." He was elected to Congress in 1944.
In 1944, Powell 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 from any Northern state other than Illinois in the Post-Reconstruction Era.
As one of only two black Congressmen (the other being William Dawson), Powell challenged the informal ban on black representatives using Capitol facilities reserved for white members only. He took black constituents to dine with him in the "Whites Only" House restaurant. He clashed with the many segregationists in his own party.
In 1956, Powell 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 machine to oust him in the Democratic primary election.
In 1960, Powell, hearing of planned civil rights marches at the Democratic Convention that could embarrass the party or candidate, threatened to accuse Martin Luther King, Jr. of having a homosexual relationship with Bayard Rustin unless the marches were cancelled. King agreed to cancel the planned events and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1961, after 15 years in Congress, Powell became chairman of the powerful Education and Labor Committee. In this position, he presided over federal programs for minimum wage increases, Medicaid, expanding the minimum wage to include retail workers, equal pay for women, education and training for the deaf, nursing education, vocational training and standards for wages and work hours, as well as aid for elementary and secondary education. Powell's committee proved very effective in enacting parts of President Kennedy's "New Frontier" and President Johnson's "Great Society" social programs and the War on Poverty. It managed "the successful reporting to the Congress of 49 pieces of bedrock legislation", as President Johnson put it in an 18 May, 1966, letter congratulating Powell on the fifth anniversary of his chairmanship.
He 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 and stopped racist Congressmen from saying the word "nigger" in sessions of Congress.
However, 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 was also under attack in his District, where his refusal to pay a 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 the Judiciary Committee's investigation. 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 did not take his seat. He sued in Powell v. McCormack to retain his seat. In November 1968, Powell was again elected. On January 3, 1969, he was seated as a member of the 91st Congress; but he was fined $25,000 and denied seniority. In June 1969, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell, a duly elected member
Powell's increasing absenteeism was noted. In June 1970, he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Charles B. Rangel. That fall, he failed to get on the November ballot as an Independent; and he resigned as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and moved to his retreat on Bimini. Rangel continues to represent the district (2010).
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 while aloft in a plane and scattered his remains over the waters of his beloved Bimini.
His first wife was nightclub entertainer Isabel Washington, the sister of actress Fredi Washington. Powell adopted her son Preston, from a previous marriage.
Powell and his second wife, singer Hazel Scott, had a son, Adam Clayton Powell III. Adam Clayton Powell III is Vice Provost for Globalization at the University of Southern California (USC) and one of the world's leading authorities on the use of the Internet for journalists. He named his son Adam Clayton Powell IV.
Powell and his third wife, Puerto Rican Yvette Diago, had a son Adam Clayton Powell Diago, so named in the matrilineal tradition of some Latino cultures. This son changed his name to Adam Clayton Powell IV when he moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico to attend Howard University. This caused confusion because his nephew, only 8 years younger than he, was also named Adam Clayton Powell IV.
The politician A. C. Powell IV named his son Adam Clayton Powell V. In the 2010 Democratic primary election, A. C. Powell IV lost his challenge to the incumbent Charles B. Rangel for the right to run for Congress in his father's District.
In 1967, Yvette Diago, the mother of Adam Clayton Powell IV and third wife of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., made national headlines when she was subpoenaed by a U.S. Congressional committee with respect to her theft of State funds. 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, even though she had moved back to Puerto Rico in 1961.
As reported by Time Magazine, Yvette Diago continued living in Puerto Rico and "performed no work at all" yet remained on the payroll, where her salary climbed to $20,578 until January 1967, when she was exposed and fired.
Seventh Avenue north of Central Park has been renamed Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. One of the landmarks along this street is the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building. In addition, two schools were named after him, PS 153, at 1750 Amsterdam Ave., and a middle school, IS 172 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., School of Social Justice, at 509 W. 129th St., which closed in 2009.
Powell was the subject of the 2002 cable television film Keep the Faith, Baby, starring Harry Lennix as Powell and Vanessa L. Williams as his second wife, jazz pianist Hazel Scott. The film debuted on February 17, 2002, on premium cable network Showtime and was produced by the Viacom companies Showtime Premium Networks, Paramount Network Television, and Blockbuster on a budget of $6 million. It garnered three NAACP Image Award nominations for Outstanding Television Movie, Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie (Lennix), and Outstanding Actress in a TV Movie (Williams). It won two National Association of Minorities in Cable (NAMIC) Vision Awards for Best Drama and Best Actor in a Television Film (Lennix), the International Press Association's Best Actress in a Television Film Award (Williams), and Reel.com's Best Actor in a Television Film (Lennix). The film's producer was Geoffrey L. Garfield, Powell IV's long-time campaign manager; Monty Ross, a confidant of Spike Lee; and Hollywood veteran Harry J. Ufland. The film was written by Art Washington and directed by Doug McHenry.