Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 18th district
In office
January 3, 1963 – January 3, 1971
Preceded by Alfred E. Santangelo
Succeeded by Charles B. Rangel
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 16th district
In office
January 3, 1953 – January 3, 1963
Preceded by James J. Murphy
Succeeded by John M. Murphy
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 22nd district
In office
January 3, 1945 – January 3, 1953
Preceded by Walter A. Lynch
Succeeded by Sidney A. Fine
Personal details
Born (1908-11-29)November 29, 1908
New Haven, Connecticut
Died April 4, 1972(1972-04-04) (aged 63)
Miami, Florida
Resting place Ashes scattered over Bimini
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Isabel Washington
(1933–1945) (divorce)
Hazel Scott
(1945–1960) (divorce)
Yvette Flores Diago
(1960–1965) (divorce)
Children Preston Powell
(adopted, first marriage)
Adam Clayton Powell III
(second marriage)
Adam Clayton Powell IV
(third marriage)
Alma mater Colgate University, Columbia University, Shaw University
Religion Baptist

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (November 29, 1908 – April 4, 1972) was a Baptist pastor and an American politician, who represented Harlem, New York City, in the United States House of Representatives (1945–71). He was the first person from New York of African-American descent to be elected to Congress, and the fourth African American from the North to be elected in the Post-Reconstruction Era after Oscar Stanton De Priest. He became a powerful national politician of the Democratic Party, re-elected numerous times and serving as a national spokesman on civil rights and social issues. He also urged presidents to support emerging nations in Africa and Asia as they gained independence after colonialism.

In 1961, after sixteen years in the House, Powell became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, the most powerful position held by an African American in Congress. As Chairman, he supported the passage of important social legislation under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Following allegations of corruption, in 1967 Powell was excluded from his seat by Democratic Representatives-elect of the 90th Congress, but he was re-elected and regained the seat in a 1969 United States Supreme Court ruling in Powell v. McCormack.


  • Early years 1
  • Career 2
  • Political career 3
    • New York City Council 3.1
    • Congress 3.2
    • Global work 3.3
    • Committee chairmanship and legislation 3.4
    • Political controversy 3.5
  • Marriage and family 4
  • Family scandal 5
  • Death 6
  • Legacy 7
  • Representation in other media 8
  • Works 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • Further reading 12
    • Primary sources 12.1
  • External links 13

Early years

Powell was born in 1908 in New Haven, Connecticut, the second child and only son of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Mattie Buster Shaffer, both born poor in Virginia and West Virginia, respectively. His sister Blanche was 10 years older. His parents were of mixed race with African and European ancestry (and, according to his father, American Indian on his mother's side). They and ancestors were classified as mulatto in 19th-century censuses; Powell's paternal grandmother's ancestors had been free for generations before the Civil War.[1] By that year, Powell Sr. had become a prominent Baptist minister, serving as a pastor in Philadelphia, and being called as the lead pastor at a Baptist church in New Haven.

Powell Sr. had worked his way out of poverty and through Wayland Seminary, a historically black college, and postgraduate study at Yale University and Virginia Seminary. After his son's birth, that year Powell Sr. was called as the pastor of the prominent Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City; he led the church for decades through major expansion. He directed fundraising and construction of an addition to accommodate the increased membership of the congregation during the years of the Great Migration. It grew to a community of 10,000 persons.

Due to his father's achievements, Powell grew up in a wealthy household in New York City. As a young child Adam was born with hazel eyes, fair skin and blond hair, he could pass for white, but he did not play with that identity until college.[2] He attended Townsend Harris High School. He studied at City College of New York, then started at Colgate University in upstate as a freshman. The four other African-American students at Colgate were all athletes. For a time, Powell briefly passed as white, using his appearance to escape racial strictures at college. The other black students were dismayed to discover what he had done.[2][3] Encouraged by his father to become a minister, Powell got more serious about his studies at Colgate; he earned his bachelor's degree in 1930.[4] After returning to New York, he did graduate work. In 1931, he earned an M.A. in religious education from Columbia University. He became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity started by and for blacks.

Apparently later trying to bolster his black identity, Powell told stories of his paternal grandparents having been born to slavery.[2] But, his paternal grandmother, Sally Dunning, was at least the third generation of free people of color; in the 1860 census, she is listed as a free mulatto, along with her mother, grandmother, and siblings.[1] Sally never identified the father of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., born 1865. She appeared to have named her son after her older brother Adam Dunning, listed on the 1860 census as the head of their household and a farmer.[1] In 1867 Sally Dunning married Anthony Bush, a mulatto freedman. All the family members were listed under the surname Dunning in the 1870 census.

The family changed its surname to Powell when they moved to Kanawha County, West Virginia, as part of their new life there.[5][6] It was shown in the 1880 census.[7]

Adam Jr.'s mother Mattie Buster Shaffer was also of mixed race; her parents had been slaves in Virginia, who were freed after the American Civil War. Powell's parents married in West Virginia, where they met. Numerous freedmen had migrated there in the late 19th century for work.


Powell addressing a citizens' committee mass meeting

After ordination, Powell began assisting his father with charitable services at the church, and as a preacher. He greatly increased the volume of meals and clothing provided to the needy, and began to learn more about the lives of the working class and poor in Harlem.

During the rent strikes, and public campaigns to force companies, utilities and Harlem Hospital, which operated in the community, to hire black workers at a skill level higher than the lowest positions to which they had formerly been restricted by informal discriminatory custom.

For instance, during the Empire State Building; as a result, the number of black employees was increased from about 200 to 732.[9] In 1941, he led a bus boycott in Harlem; the Transit Authority hired 200 black workers and set the precedent for more. Powell also led a fight to have drugstores operating in Harlem to hire black pharmacists. He encouraged local residents to shop only where blacks were hired to work.[10]

In 1938, he succeeded his father as Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Political career

New York City Council

In 1941, with the aid of New York City's use of the Single Transferable Vote, Powell 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.[11]

"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."


In 1944, Powell ran for the United States Congress on a platform of civil rights for African Americans: support for "fair employment practices, and a ban on poll taxes and lynching." Requiring poll taxes for voter registration and voting was a device used in southern states in new constitutions adopted from 1890 to 1908 to disfranchise blacks and many poor whites, in order to exclude them from politics. Such devices, together with social and economic intimidation, were maintained in the South into the 1960s to keep blacks powerless.

Powell was elected as a Democrat to represent the Congressional District that included Harlem.[12] He was the first black Congressman from New York State and the first in the Post-Reconstruction Era from any Northern state other than Illinois.

As the historian Charles V. Hamilton wrote in his 1992 political biography,

"Here was a person who [in the 1940s] would at least 'speak out.'... That would be different ... Many Negroes were angry that no Northern liberals would get up on the floor of Congress and challenge the segregationists. ... Powell certainly promised to do that. ...
"[In] the 1940s and 1950s, he was, indeed, virtually alone.... And precisely because of that, he was exceptionally crucial. In many instances during those earlier times, if he did not speak out, the issue would not have been raised. ... For example, only he could (or would dare to) challenge Congressman Rankin of Mississippi on the House floor in the 1940s for using the word 'nigger.' He certainly did not change Rankin's mind or behavior, but he gave solace to millions who longed for a little retaliatory defiance."[13]

As one of only two black Congressmen (the other being William Levi Dawson)[14] until 1955, Powell challenged the informal ban on black representatives using Capitol facilities reserved for white members.[12] He took black constituents to dine with him in the "Whites Only" House restaurant. He clashed with the many segregationists from the South in his party. Since the late 19th century, Southern Democrats commanded a one-party system, as they had effectively disfranchised most blacks from voting since the turn of the century and excluded them from the political system. The white Congressmen and Senators controlled all the seats allocated for the total population in the southern states, had established seniority, and commanded many important committee chairs in the House and Senate.

Powell worked closely with Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., the NAACP representative in Washington, to try to gain justice in federal programs. Hamilton described the NAACP as "the quarterback that threw the ball to Powell, who, to his credit, was more than happy to catch and run with it."[13] He developed a strategy known as the "Powell Amendments." "On bill after bill that proposed federal expenditures, Powell would offer 'our customary amendment,' requiring that federal funds be denied to any jurisdiction that maintained segregation; Liberals would be embarrassed, Southern politicians angered."[13] This principle would later become integrated into Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Powell was willing to act independently; in 1956, he 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 Democratic Party machine in New York to oust him in the primary election. In 1960, Powell, hearing of planned civil rights marches at the Democratic Convention, which could embarrass the party or candidate, threatened to accuse Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of having a homosexual relationship with Bayard Rustin unless the marches were cancelled. Rustin was one of King's political advisers and was an openly gay man. King agreed to cancel the planned events and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.[15]

Powell with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office, 1965.

Global work

Powell also paid attention to the issues of developing nations in Africa and Asia, making trips overseas. He urged presidential policymakers to pay attention to nations seeking independence from colonial powers and support aid to them. During the Cold War, many of them sought neutrality between the United States and the Soviet Union. He made speeches on the House Floor to celebrate the anniversaries of the independence of nations such as Ghana, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone.[12]

In 1955, against the State Department's advice, Powell attended the Asian–African Conference as an observer. He made a positive international impression in public addresses that balanced his concerns of his nation's race relations problems with a spirited defense of the United States as a whole against Communist criticisms. Powell returned to the United States to a warm bipartisan reception for his performance, and he was invited to meet with President Dwight Eisenhower.

With this influence, Powell suggested to the State Department that the current manner of competing with the Soviet Union in the realm of fine arts such as international symphony orchestra and ballet company tours was ineffective. Instead, he advised that the United States should focus on the popular arts, such as sponsoring international tours of famous jazz musicians, which could draw attention to an indigenous American art form and featured musicians who often performed in mixed race bands. The State Department approved the idea. The first such tour with Dizzy Gillespie proved to be an outstanding success abroad and prompted similarly popular tours featuring other musicians for years.[16]

Committee chairmanship and legislation

In 1961, after 15 years in Congress, Powell advanced to chairman of the powerful House Education and Labor Committee. In this position, he presided over federal social programs for minimum wage and Medicaid (established later under Johnson); he expanded the minimum wage to include retail workers; and worked for equal pay for women; he supported education and training for the deaf, nursing education, and vocational training; he led legislation for standards for wages and work hours; as well as for aid for elementary and secondary education, and school libraries.[12] Powell's committee proved extremely effective in enacting major parts of President Kennedy's "New Frontier" and President Johnson's "Great Society" social programs and the War on Poverty. It successfully reported to Congress "49 pieces of bedrock legislation", as President Johnson put it in an May 18, 1966 letter congratulating Powell on the fifth anniversary of his chairmanship.[17]

Powell 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. Voter registration and electoral practices were not changed substantially in most of the South until after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided federal oversight of voter registration and elections, and enforcement of the constitutional right to vote. In some areas where discrimination was severe, such as Mississippi, it took years for African Americans to register and vote in numbers related to their proportion in the population, but they have since maintained a high rate of registration and voting.

Political controversy

By the mid-1960s, Powell was increasingly being criticized for mismanaging his committee's budget, taking trips abroad at public expense, and missing meetings of his committee. When under scrutiny by the press and other members of Congress for personal conduct—he had taken two young women at government expense with him on overseas travel—he responded:
I wish to state very emphatically… that I will always do just what every other Congressman and committee chairman has done and is doing and will do."[13]
Opponents led criticism in his District, where his refusal to pay a 1963 slander judgment made him subject to arrest; he also 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 an investigation by the Judiciary Committee. 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, is the end of the United States of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave."[18]

Powell won the Special Election to fill the vacancy caused by his exclusion, but he did not take his seat, as he was filing a separate suit. He sued in Powell v. McCormack to retain his seat. In November 1968, Powell was re-elected. On January 3, 1969, he was seated as a member of the 91st Congress; but he was fined $25,000 and denied seniority.[19] In June 1969, in Powell v. McCormack, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell, a duly elected member.[20]

Powell's increasing absenteeism was noted by constituents, which contributed, in June 1970, to his defeat in the Democratic primary for reelection to his seat (by Charles B. Rangel). Powell then failed to garner enough signatures to get on the November ballot as an Independent, and Rangel won that (and following) general elections. In the fall of 1970, Powell moved to his retreat on Bimini in the Bahamas, also resigning as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Marriage and family

In 1933, Powell married Isabel Washington, an African-American singer and nightclub entertainer. Like Powell, she was visibly of mixed race. She was the sister of actress Fredi Washington. Powell adopted her son Preston, from her first marriage.

After their divorce, in 1945 Powell married the singer Hazel Scott. They had a son, named Adam Clayton Powell III. He later became a university administrator, Vice Provost for Globalization at the University of Southern California.

Powell divorced again, and in 1960 married Yvette Flores Diago from Puerto Rico. They had a son, whom he named Adam Clayton Powell Diago, with the mother's surname according to Latino tradition. In 1980, this son changed his name to Adam Clayton Powell IV, dropping Diago, when he moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico to attend Howard University. (His half-nephew, 8 years younger, was also named Adam Clayton Powell IV.)

This youngest son of Powell, known as A.C. Powell IV, later was elected to the New York City Council in 1991 in a special election; he served for two terms. He also was elected as a New York state Assemblyman (D-East Harlem) for three terms. After he and his wife had a son, they named him Adam Clayton Powell V. In the 2010 Democratic primary election, A. C. Powell IV unsuccessfully challenged the incumbent Charles B. Rangel for the Democratic candidacy in his father's former Congressional District.

Family scandal

In 1967, a U.S. Congressional committee subpoenaed Yvette Diago, the former third wife of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and the mother of Adam Clayton Powell IV. They were investigating potential "theft of state funds" related to her having been on Powell, Jr.'s payroll but doing no work.[21][22] 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, although she had moved back to Puerto Rico in 1961.[22][23] As reported by Time Magazine, Yvette Diago had continued living in Puerto Rico and "performed no work at all," yet was kept on the payroll. Her salary was increased to $20,578 and she was paid until January 1967, when she was exposed and fired.[21][22][23][24]


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, his son Adam III poured his ashes from a plane over the waters of his beloved Bimini.


Seventh Avenue north of Central Park has been renamed the 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. In 2011, the new Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Paideia Academy opened in Chicago's historic South Shore neighborhood. The building, situated on Chicago parkland, is part of the Chicago Public School System's Green Buildings initiatives, and is LEED Platinum certified.

Representation in other media

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. 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's Best Actor in a Television Film (Lennix). The film's producers were 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.


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

See also


  1. ^ a b c 1860 US Census, "Adam Duning" and family, Franklin County, North Eastern Division, Virginia.
  2. ^ a b c
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ 1870 Census, "Anthony Dunning" and family, Franklin County, Bonbrook PO, Virginia; and 1880 Census, "Anthony Powell" and family, Cabin Creek, Kanawha County, West Virginia
  6. ^ J. Daniel Pezzoni, "Hook-Powell-Moorman Farm": Historic Nomination Form, United States Department of the Interior, 1995. According to Charles V. Hamilton, a 1991 biographer of Powell, Anthony Bush "decided to take the name Powell as a new identity."
  7. ^ 1880 Census, "Anthony Powell" and family, Cabin Creek, Kanawha County, West Virginia
  8. ^
  9. ^ Current Biography 1942, pp 675–76.
  10. ^ Current Biography 1942, p. 675
  11. ^ Id. p. 676.
  12. ^ a b c d "Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.", Black Americans in Congress, US House of Representatives, accessed October 24, 2011
  13. ^ a b c d Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. The Political Biography of an American DilemmaLeslie Dunbar, Review: "Using the Dilemma": , by Charles V. Hamilton (Atheneum, 1991), in Southern Changes, Vol. 14, No. 4, 1992, pp. 27–29, accessed October 22, 2011
  14. ^ Black Americans in Congress, courtesy of the House of Representatives.
  15. ^ Hamilton, Charles V. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma, New York: Atheneum, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991, p. 336
  16. ^
  17. ^ Hamilton (1991), Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. p. 24
  18. ^ "1967 Year In Review,"
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ a b c
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^ Wil Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1993) pp. 251–52, 286–89, 327–33, 364–65

Further reading

  • Capeci, Dominic J. "From Different Liberal Perspectives: Fiorello H. La Guardia, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Civil Rights in New York City, 1941-1943." Journal of Negro History (1977): 160-173. in JSTOR
  • Hamilton, Charles V. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (1991).
  • Paris, Peter J. Black Leaders in Conflict: Joseph H. Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Pilgrim Press, 1978)

Primary sources

  • Powell Jr, Adam Clayton. Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr (Kensington Books, 2002)

External links

  • Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • United States House of Representatives biography of Powell
  • , January 5, 1992.Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma interview with Charles Hamilton on Booknotes
  • Speech by Adam Clayton Powell given on April 10, 1969. Audio recording. From the University of Alabama's Emphasis Symposium on Contemporary Issues.
  • Rushing, Lawrence, "The Racial Identity of Adam Clayton Powell Jr: A Case Study in Racial Ambivalence and Redefinition", Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 1, 2010
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Walter A. Lynch
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 22nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Sidney A. Fine
Preceded by
James J. Murphy
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 16th congressional district

Succeeded by
John M. Murphy
Preceded by
Alfred E. Santangelo
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 18th congressional district

Succeeded by
Charles B. Rangel