Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: A Flawed Hero for Civil Rights

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From 1901 to 1929, no black people served in Congress, and from 1929 to 1945 only one member of Congress was black. The three men who represented that majority black Chicago district, Republican Oscar De Priest and Democrats Arthur Mitchell and William Dawson, were all men closely tied with political machines. Mitchell and Dawson themselves had once been Republicans and proteges of De Priest. While all of them did help civil rights in their own ways, none of them provided the challenge to Jim Crow like Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Elected in 1944, Powell (1908-1972), a Baptist minister, made his presence known in Congress from the very start when he routinely challenged Southern lawmakers. He would repeatedly, for instance, try to sit as close as possible to John Rankin (D-Miss.), the chamber’s most outspoken racist and anti-Semite. Rankin, who had vowed not to sit next to blacks, would move in response. In one instance, the two men moved seats five times. Powell also challenged Rankin’s use of the word “nigger” on the House floor, which was supportive to the morale of black voters across the nation. He also successfully challenged the informal “whites only” policy of the House restaurant, which in practice would only serve blacks if they also happened to be members of Congress.

Starting in 1946, Powell would offer his “Powell Amendments” to federal legislation on education, which would prohibit aid to be extended to segregated schools.  One of two outcomes would result from its attachment to education legislation: 1. The education bill would be defeated as Southern legislators would unify against it. 2. The amendment’s meaning would be completely gutted in a conference committee. Powell’s efforts on this matter were often not appreciated by advocates for federal education – in one instance, one its supporters, Cleve Bailey (D-W.V.), grew so enraged he punched him in the jaw. A form of the Powell Amendment would become Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applied to government programs generally.

On the issues Powell was a staunch leftist. While supporting the Fair Deal to the hilt, he objected to Truman’s anti-communist program, including on foreign policy, placing him ideologically with supporters of Henry Wallace’s 1948 run for president. In 1951, he and the chamber’s other black member, William Dawson (D-Ill.), managed to kill an effort to construct a veterans hospital that would only admit black people on the grounds that it was a perpetuation of Jim Crow. He again proved himself independent when in 1956 he endorsed Dwight Eisenhower for president because he regarded the Republican Party’s civil rights plank as superior to the Democratic plank that year. In 1958, he survived a Tammany Hall effort to defeat him in the Democratic primary. Despite his bucking of his party’s establishment, sometimes he came to its defense. In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. planned to hold a march at the Democratic National Convention, and Powell threatened to tell the press of a homosexual affair between him and Bayard Rustin if he did not call it off. Powell was successful, and despite this little incident, King considered him an ally in the struggle for civil rights.

In 1961, Labor and Education Committee chairman Graham Barden (D-N.C.), a conservative segregationist, retired. While the ironclad seniority system of the time tended to benefit Southern Democrats like Barden, this time it benefited Powell, who became chair. As chair, he was a staunch supporter of the agendas of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations on education. Powell came to the height of his power during the Great Society Congress, when he steered many Great Society bills to passage, as much of the legislation originated in his committee, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as well as an increase in the minimum wage. However, his ethics and absenteeism issues were catching up to him.

In 1958, he was indicted for income tax evasion and his trial had resulted in a hung jury. In 1963, a court ruled that he had committed slander against a constituent for alleging she was a “bag woman”, a courier for transferring money between politicians and racketeers. For failing to pay the court’s judgment he was subject to civil arrest in the state of New York. Since civil arrest orders couldn’t be served on Sundays, Powell only came to visit his district on Sundays. In 1967, it was discovered that he had been keeping his third wife on his payroll for six years and gave her a pay raise without her performing any work. Powell also often didn’t show for votes as he would regularly go on trips abroad at taxpayer expense or spend significant periods of time at his vacation home in Bimini. This absenteeism annoyed his constituency as did his abstention from the vote on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as he didn’t think it strong enough.

In 1967, the House voted not to seat him after an investigation of his conduct revealed numerous ethics violations, and he was excluded for the 90th Congress. Powell challenged this exclusion in the Supreme Court and in the meantime became more strident in his views – less than two weeks before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he renounced non-violence and embraced the Black Power Movement. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled his exclusion from Congress unconstitutional in Powell v. McCormack (1969), so he was seated in the 91st Congress, but with a fine and a loss of seniority. Although Powell had survived a challenge from Congress in the Supreme Court, his victory didn’t last: he lost by 200 votes in the 1970 Democratic primary as his constituents had turned him out in favor of Charles Rangel. To make matters worse for Powell, he was already ill with prostate cancer and his condition worsened after his defeat. He spent most of his remaining days in Bimini and died on April 4, 1972, aged 63.

Powell for many black Americans was a hero for his efforts on behalf of civil rights, but he was like the heroes of Ancient Greece in that he was a fatally flawed figure, and his flaws brought about his political downfall.


Powell Rebuffed in Court Fight Here. (1964, December 5). The New York Times.

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Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

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The Mixed Legacy of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (2016, February 15). The Arthur Ashe Legacy.

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