POWELL, ADAM CLAYTON One of the most interesting, charismatic and controversial black Americans of the twentieth century, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born in 1908 in Connecticut. Moving to New York City while still an infant, Powell was the son of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., a Baptist minister who had been named pastor of the Abyssinia Baptist Church in lower Manhattan. Over a period of twenty-five years, the elder Powell increased the number of parishioners at Abyssinia from less than fifteen hundred to more than fourteen thousand, making it one of the largest Protestant churches in the United States. Following his education at Colgate (B. A., 1930) and Columbia (M. A., 1932), and his father's retirement in 1937, Adam, Jr. became pastor of Abyssinia, which had since moved from lower Manhattan to Harlem.
Notwithstanding his clerical collar, Powell had a flair for wine, women and song, soon aquiring a "playboy" reputation. Although many of his parishioners objected to his extracurricular activities, these objections were largely offset by the manner in which Powell used his church as a powerbase to promote positive reform in Harlem. Utilizing fiery and charismatic oratory, coupled with picketing, boycotts and street demonstrations, Powell was instrumental in securing lower rent payments, better hospital care and more jobs for residents of Harlem. These activities persuaded him to pursue a political career, campaigning for and winning a seat on the New York City Council in 1941. Elected to the U. ,S. House of Representatives in 1944, Powell served as Harlem's congressional representative for the next quarter century.
Powell's career in Congress was a curious mixture of positive achievement and irresponsibility. Refusing to play the role of "Uncle Tom," he relentlessly pushed for civil rights legislation, including the abolition of racial discrimination at American military installations and the denial of federal funds to any project or institution where discriminatory practices existed. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Powell, who had since been named chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, was instrumental in securing vital antipoverty and educational measures designed to aid blacks. On the other hand, his reluctance to conform to congressional procedure and etiquette, his poor record of attendance, his playboy image and his alleged involvement in tax irregularities and misuse of government funds did not endear him to his colleagues.
In 1967, Powell was censured in the House, which also excluded him from his seat on the grounds of misuse of funds and for his refusal to pay a court-ordered slander judgment against him. The voters of Harlem, however, reelected Powell in 1968. He regained his seat (but not his seniority or chairmanship) and, following a Supreme Court decision in his favor, his back pay. Nevertheless, his influence in Congress thereafter was practically nonexistent, spending most of his time at his retreat on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. As the result of this, together with a growing weariness of his erratic and irresponsible behavior, Powell lost in his bid for reelection in 1970. Two years later, on April 4, 1972, he died from complications arising after a surgical operation.