February was Black History Month and a time to recognize African Americans who have pioneered a pathway for other individuals to positively impact the world. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, a community activist, and the first African American to be a member of the House of Representatives, representing New York.
Powell Jr. was born November 29, 1908 in New Haven, Connecticut. He was born the son of Mattie Buster Shaffer and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., who was, at the time, a Baptist minister in New Haven. Their family was of mixed racial origins, including African, European and Native American. Adam also had an older sister named Blanche. Powell Sr. had graduated from Wayland Seminary, Yale University and Virginia Seminary, and he was later chosen to pastor the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. Adam Jr. grew up in a rather wealthy household due to his father’s success and attended Townsend Harris High School before studying at City College of New York and then Colgate University. He was a handsome young man and because of his fair skin and hazel eyes, he was often able to pass as being white (at birth his hair was blonde), often allowing him to avoid much of the racial strife that was directed towards his Black classmates. This caused a great deal of anger on their part towards him because he withheld his racial background from his classmates, even joining a white fraternity, which was very uncommon in those days.
Adam used his role in his community to influence change in African Americans. He organized picket lines and mass meetings to demand reforms at Harlem Hospital, which had fired five doctors because they were black. In 1932, he administered a church–sponsored relief program that provided food, clothing, and temporary jobs for thousands of people who were homeless and unemployed in Harlem. He became a well-known civil rights leader during the Great Depression, directing mass meetings, rent strikes, and public campaigns that forced employers, including restaurants, utilities, and the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, to hire or promote African American workers. Powell’s social activism easily earned him the support of Harlem residents, which helped lay the foundation for his future political career.
Powell later decided to enter the local political scene. The 33–year–old Powell easily won a seat on the New York City council in 1941 after the New York City Mayor endorsed him. During World War II, Powell remained stern and fought against attacks on racial discrimination in the military and in local communities. The People’s Voice was a weekly newspaper Powell published and edited from 1941 to 1945 that he used to voice opinions. The fiery politician attracted national attention with his articles. He gained additional political experience during the war years by serving on the New York State Office of Price Administration.
Running on a platform that focused on the advancement of African–American rights through the promotion of fair employment practices and a ban on poll taxes and lynching, Powell received support from two of New York City’s most influential organizations: the Abyssinian Church and the local Democratic machine, Tammany Hall. Powell promised to represent all residents of his district no matter their race or political affiliation. Powell’s willingness to make changes and his popularity in New York City earned him a chair in the 79th Congress. He was the first African–American Member to represent New York. Powell’s demand for racial equality and his uncompromising demeanor resonated with the people of Harlem, whose support essentially guaranteed Powell a House seat for the majority of his career. Like many of his future African–American House colleagues, Powell parlayed his strong record of civil rights at the local level into a congressional career.
During his first term in Congress, Powell served on the Indian Affairs, Invalid Pensions, and Labor committees. In 1947, the Education Committee and the Labor Committee were merged, and Powell remained on the new panel for 11 terms, three of them as chairman. Powell was also a member of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs from 1955 until 1961. During his first term, he introduced legislation to extend the civil rights of District of Columbia residents, to outlaw lynching and the poll tax, and to end discrimination in the armed forces, housing, employment, and transportation. He attached an anti–discrimination clause to multiple pieces of legislation, and the rider became known as the Powell Amendment. His commitment to prohibit federal funding to groups advocating unequal treatment of Black Americans earned him the epithet “Mr. Civil Rights” and infuriated some of his congressional colleagues. Powell spent considerable time drawing attention to the plight of poor Africans and Asians. During much of his time in Congress, Powell occupied the public spotlight.
Diagnosed with cancer in 1969, Powell declined rapidly after he left Congress. He retired as minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1971 and spent his last days in Bimini. He died on April 4, 1972, in Miami, Florida. Once asked to describe his political career, Powell said, “As a member of Congress, I have done nothing more than any other member and, by the grace of God, I intend to do not one bit less.”