Today marks the 100th birthday of civil rights and political legend Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. And unlike the celebrations and memorials that will be held around the country marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. next month, there will be little or no mention of Powell today. And that is a shame and our community’s loss. Congressman Powell was a giant among men and his contributions undoubtedly opened the door to opportunity for generations to come. We have no doubt that the inauguration of the first Black President next month would not have occurred had not Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. served in Congress.
While Dr. King, Whitney Young, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins led the fight for civil rights outside the country’s power structure, Adam Clayton Powell took the fight inside, engaging in the political equivalent of hand to hand combat in the halls of Congress. A fiery preacher, who despite his flamboyance and womanizing fought segregationists with the confidence of a God sent messenger, Powell’s understanding of the legislative process was deep and he used it to advance the interests of Black Americans. And he did so virtually alone, as his counterpart at the time, William Dawson of Chicago, was a much more reserved figure who did not buck the system.
Cunning and magnetic, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. simply overwhelmed his colleagues on the Hill. To date, no Member of Congress has matched Powell’s legislative success. He was criticized for appending his bills with his “Powell amendment,” a requirement that federal funds do not support any project where discrimination existed; yet that principle later became embedded in law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Powell shepherded 50 bills through Congress and is responsible for much of the landmark legislation behind President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda, including establishing the minimum wage, the Vocational Education Act, the National Defense Education Act, the Manpower Development and Training Act, and the Juvenile Delinquency Act. It was under the National Defense Education Act that student loans were created and grant programs for institutions of higher education.
Congressman Powell was the muscle behind President Johnson’s ambitious anti-poverty program. His leadership helped establish the Community Action Program, Head Start, Job Corps, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, Upward Bound, and VISTA. Powell was responsible for the HARYOU-ACT, an innovative community based anti-poverty initiative led by Dr. Kenneth Clark. Under the Office of Economic Opportunity, work study and adult basic education programs were established. The breadth of legislation that Powell advanced is mind numbing given the slow pace at which progressive change occurs in Washington these days.
Yes, Congressman Powell had his faults and perhaps had he been a bit more humble he could have held onto his seat. However, that was not Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. And as we now know, Adam was fighting a terminal illness during his self imposed exile on Bimini and most likely accepted his defeat as an eventuality. Yet, it was the complexity of the man that kept us in awe because he could be so many things to so many different people. Preacher, politician, playboy. We loved them all. Already a mythic figure, his legend would be much larger today if he had lived when television began to shape popular culture. Much of his work in the mid 1960’s took place in committee rooms and cloak rooms on Capitol Hill far from the view of the public. It is one of the reasons he is such an underappreciated figure in American history, even in the Black community.
So, on this 100th birthday of the Prince of Harlem, we are going to do just what he implored , Keep the Faith. Our nation is a much better place today because of the service of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. We honor his memory and hope that his legacy will begin to be given its rightful place in history.