Facts about Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. died at 63 years old
Died: April 4, 1972
Best known as: The Harlem preacher who was a congressman from 1945 to 1970

     

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Biography

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was a flamboyant Harlem minister, civil rights activist and U.S. congressman from the 1940s up until 1970, when he lost his 12th bid for re-election.

Powell was of mixed race and born into a comfortable lifestyle — his father was the influential minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church, the largest Protestant congregation of African-Americans in the U.S. When Powell attended Colgate University, he “passed” as a white student and even joined a white fraternity.

Back in Harlem after college, Powell became a social activist in the 1930s, and ramped that up when he took over his father’s pulpit in 1937. He proudly proclaimed his African heritage and doggedly worked to ensure employment for tens of thousands of black Americans.

Powell was the first African-American to be elected to Congress from the northeast, in 1945. He served in the House of Representatives until 1970.

He was a productive representative for his constituency and a burr under the saddle of the white establishment, easily re-elected without even campaigning.

Powell’s big achievement was in boosting the federal budget for education, but he was also instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act passed under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Powell’s flamboyant lifestyle on the taxpayer dime didn’t seem to bother the voters back home, but his fellow congressmen chafed at his open use of the office for personal gain.

A long-standing libel suit against him ultimately caused the other representatives to investigate Powell, and in 1967 they voted to exclude Powell from the 90th Congress. The House fined him, stripped him of seniority and refused to seat him.

Powell ran in the special election to fill his own vacated seat and won in a landslide, without even leaving his vacation home in The Bahamas.

He was vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled in 1969 that the House had exceeded their constitutional authority.

Powell ran for his seat again in 1970 and lost. He retired to his home in The Bahamas and died in Miami in 1972.

Extra credit

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was married to Isabel Washington from 1933 until 1945, when he married jazz artist Hazel Scott (the mother of Adam Clayton Powell III). They divorced in 1960 and Powell married Yvette Flores Diago (mother of New York politician Adam Clayton Powell IV).


     

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