Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was one of America's most influential black leaders in the 1950s and early 60s, a charismatic minister and powerful Congressman representing New York's predominantly black Harlem district. Charges of financial impropriety eventually led to his political downfall, and in recent decades he has faded from public memory. But Washington Post writer Wil Haygood takes another look at the crusading activist in King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Originally published in 1993. HarperCollins has reissued the biography with an updated introduction.
Wil Haygood says he grew up hearing about Adam Clayton Powell, but the name always seemed to evoke images of scandal or flamboyance. Years later he learned that the former Congressman had helped sponsor Upward Bound, a summer college preparatory program for disadvantaged youth that Haygood himself attended. That prompted him to look deeper into the life of a man he describes as a fighter and a rebel.
"In the 1950s, he was fighting for poor farmers, people who didn't have enough food to eat. He took the issue of black rights to Europe doing speeches," Haygood says. "He went to Africa. He always seemed to tie the plight of blacks the world over."
His famous flamboyance was an important part of Adam Clayton Powell's story as well, says Wil Haygood. "He had style. He came of age during the Harlem Renaissance. His parents knew poets and writers and singers. His second wife was the celebrated jazz pianist Hazel Scott. And on top of all that he was a very handsome, suave guy. He was six-foot-four. He had a big, booming voice. He had a thin mustache. He had wavy hair. He was just a matinee idol for the times. Of all the cool cats, he was the king of the cool cats. "
Powell's three marriages, his taste for luxury, and his exotic travels all added to his larger-than-life image. Born in 1908, Powell grew up a minister's son and eventually inherited his father's pulpit at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. He also inherited from his father a strong sense of racial solidarity. The younger Powell was so light skinned that he passed for white briefly during his first year at Colgate University. When his deception was revealed, his angry father taught him a lifelong lesson. "I think it told him he had a history," explains Wil Haygood. "He was supposed to be proud of who he was. And he should never shame his family again."
Mr. Haygood says Powell's growing activism was fueled by the innovative artists and unorthodox political thinkers who flocked to Harlem in the early decades of the 20th century. "All of these 'radical minds' went on marches, staged protests, wrote columns in weekly newspapers, challenged segregation. And Adam Clayton Powell, from the steps of his church, saw this whole stew of brave people who said that we're going to change the country."
After establishing his reputation as a local reform politician, Adam Clayton Powell ran successfully for the U.S. Congress in 1944. He quickly charmed white and black society alike in Washington, and proved adept at building political alliances.
Although he was a Democrat, Powell supported Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower in his 1956 Presidential race. "It stunned many people," Wil Haygood notes, "but Powell thought that many Democrats were simply paying lip service to civil rights and he wanted to try something new, something that would get some attention. And by doing that, Powell also put pressure on the Eisenhower White House to pay attention to civil rights."
Adam Clayton Powell would work closely with a later President, Lyndon Johnson, to craft landmark civil rights and anti-poverty legislation. His efforts often paralleled those of another famous minister turned social activist, Martin Luther King, Jr. But while King came from the segregated South, Powell was a Northerner, and Wil Haygood says that gave him a tougher edge.
"Powell on a daily basis dealt with unions that wouldn't treat blacks fairly. He dealt with stores that wouldn't hire black women. Powell had a sense that there were going to be fierce battles over segregation in the North in terms of housing and jobs. And I think he was also somewhat jealous when this younger minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., started getting national attention."
An unsettled libel suit and alleged misuse of public funds led to Powell's expulsion from Congress in 1967. Although the Supreme Court reinstated him, his reputation never recovered. He died on April 4, 1972, four years to the day after King's assassination.
Wil Haygood says Adam Clayton Powell left behind an important legacy of achievement, but few political heirs. "I don't think you could last as long as he did because of the ethics rules that were put in place, ironically, because of Adam Clayton Powell. The glare of the media is so big. And also you can't buy style. Either you have that magnetism or you don't. And he had it."
It was a magnetism that mixed glamour and populism. Even though he lived high, says Wil Haygood, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. could still "get down on his knees and walk with people who had nothing."