Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a prominent African American congressman, serving his district in New York City's Harlem neighborhood from 1945 to 1970. A flamboyant and often controversial political figure, Powell played a key role in passing many federal education and social welfare programs in the 1960s. Near the end of his tenure, however, Powell was embroiled with the House of Representatives over alleged ethical lapses.
Powell was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on November 29, 1908. When he was less than a year old, his father moved the family to New York City's Harlem neighborhood to accept the ministry at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The church, which was a hundred years old, expanded under the elder Powell's leadership, in time becoming one of the largest congregations in the United States.
Powell graduated from Colgate University in 1930 and received a master of arts degree in religious education from Columbia University in 1931. He served as assistant minister and business manager of the Abyssinian Church in 1930 and succeeded his father as minister in 1936. He remained minister of the church for thirty-five years.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Powell acted aggressively to address racial and social injustice in New York City. In 1930 he organized picket lines and mass meetings to demand reform of Harlem Hospital, which had fired five African American doctors because of their race. Powell also used the church as an instrument of social welfare, distributing food, clothing, and temporary jobs to thousands of Harlem's destitute residents.
Powell soon was recognized as a charismatic CIVIL RIGHTS leader, adept at forcing restaurants, retail stores, bus companies, utilities, and phone companies either to hire or begin promoting African American employees. He transferred his efforts into the political arena in 1941, when he was elected as an independent to the New York City Council. During WORLD WAR II he worked for the New York State Office of Price Administration and the Manhattan Civilian Defense, as well as publishing a weekly newspaper, The People's Voice.
In 1944 he was elected as a Democrat to Congress, representing the Twenty-second (later Eighteenth) District. In 1947 he took a seat on the Education and Labor Committee, which was to become the base of his power and prestige. During the 1940s and 1950s, Powell challenged racial SEGREGATION in and out of the halls of...