By Ray Hill

There was a time in our country’s history when Adam Clayton Powell was the most powerful Black person in America.  The memory of Powell has dimmed somewhat, although he has been the subject of documentaries, movies, and even more recently, is portrayed as a character in the series “The Godfather of Harlem.”  Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a man of great charm and radiated charisma, yet he was also something of a rascal.  Powell was the bane of those congressmen who really were racists.  Powell was the self-proclaimed “King of Harlem.”  Powell’s successor in Congress, Charles Rangel, readily acknowledged the former congressman was “one of the most dynamic black leaders America ever had.”  “Before there was Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, there was Adam Clayton Powell,” Rangel said.

Oftentimes, Powell’s very real intelligence was disguised or ignored due to his flamboyant style.  No one was more aware of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s image in the news media than the congressman himself.  Nor did Powell hesitate to push reporters in efforts to produce “good, perceptive writing” by pulling a yellowed clipping from his pocket from a Pacific coast publication, which had described the congressman as “arrogant, but with style.”

Perhaps the most vocal and unapologetic racist in Congress was Mississippi’s John Elliott Rankin.  When Powell was first elected to the House of Representatives, Rankin proclaimed it a “disgrace.”  Rankin growled he would never allow Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to sit near him.  Powell delighted in sitting as close to Congressman Rankin as he possibly could.  Rankin was forced to move his seat five times in one day.

When he arrived in Congress, Adam Powell found the amenities reserved for congressmen – – – dining rooms, the House gym, barber shops, steams baths and showers — were barred to the two Black members.  Powell gleefully and publicly used each to his satisfaction.

Eventually, Powell’s excesses were used against him by his enemies who first abbreviated his broad powers as chairman of the House Education & Labor Committee.  It escalated to the point where the House of Representatives, which has sole authority over its own membership, would not allow him to take the oath of office after having been duly elected.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. refused to simply take what was handed to him.  The congressman sued and took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.  Yet, it was not the end of his legal troubles.  Powell had to avoid his home in Harlem because of a lawsuit filed against him by a widow he had casually, although publicly, called a “bag woman for the police.”

Light-skinned enough to “pass” as white, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. became the most vocal advocate of equal rights for Blacks in Congress.  Powell trampled barriers during his time, but he was also a rascal who skirted the law in his personal behavior, and all too often didn’t take his congressional duties seriously.  Yet he was the first Black to be elected to the New York City Council, as well as the first Black person ever to chair a major committee in the House of Representatives when he assumed his seat at the dais of the House Education & Labor Committee in 1961.

Always elegantly dressed and well groomed, Powell generated a genuine aura of celebrity.  Powell also relished his open defiance of conventional rules and gloried in his reputation for being naughty.  A Baptist preacher by vocation, he was oft-married and usually to women one would never think of as a pastor’s wife.  Like Powell himself, his wives were glamorous in their own rights, save perhaps for the last.  What other congressmen hid from their constituencies, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. wore as a badge of honor.  Congressman Powell did his womanizing out in the open and never bothered to hide his high-living lifestyle.  A preacher who enjoyed vodka, cigars and women, the one thing Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was not, was contrite.  Powell’s public image of gleefully having his arm around a woman and a drink in the other hand further infuriated his colleagues in the House.  Powell was flamboyant and truly liked flaunting his lifestyle.  His colleagues were further enraged by Powell’s chronic absenteeism from the halls of Congress.  Powell, especially during the decade of the 1960s, was spending more and more time in Bimini than in Washington, D.C.

Eventually, Powell’s lifestyle took its toll on his one-time invincibility at the polls with his people.  Whereas previously the congressman had barely had to campaign, a core of opposition began to develop to Powell, especially when he established a private retreat in Bimini in the Bahamas.

Yet until the end of his political career, one constituent, interviewed by the press, admitted she didn’t believe Powell was “entirely innocent” of some charges, but added she didn’t believe the other congressmen were either.  By the end of his time in the House of Representatives, some constituents began complaining about Powell’s long absences from his district and preference for staying in Bimini rather than coming home to Harlem.

It was Adam Clayton Powell Sr. who built both the congregation of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the truly magnificent edifice that housed it in Harlem.  Indeed, Reverend Powell worked to enlarge his flock until it reached 13,000 members, making it the largest Protestant congregation in the country and the biggest Baptist church in the world.

Young Adam proved throughout his life to defy authority and his father was no exception.  The younger Powell’s choice of a wife appalled the Reverend Powell.  In 1933, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. stated his intention to marry Isabel Washington, who at the time would have been classified as a “showgirl,” precisely the sort not to be a preacher’s wife.  Miss Washington was an entertainer, singer and dancer and when the Reverend Powell growled that young Adam might not inherit the pulpit of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Adam made it clear he intended to do as he pleased, whatever the consequences.  Years later in an interview, Isabel Washington Powell laughed and recalled the “Prince of Abyssinia” had his way and they were married.  Powell and Isabel were divorced in 1945 and he married another entertainer, Hazel Scott, who was also a singer and an accomplished jazz pianist.  Their union produced a son, Adam Clayton Powell III.    When he divorced Isabel, Powell merely said, “I fear I just outgrew her.”  An angry Isabel Powell claimed in her suit for maintenance her husband had become “infatuated with a woman nightclub entertainer.”

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was no hypocrite; he had any number of vices that would have driven many pastors not only out of the pulpit but also out of the churches they served.  Adam Clayton Powell always seemed to have a thin cigar in his hand and was frequently surrounded by a blue haze of smoke.  Powell enjoyed a drink and made no secret of it.  Yet for decades, his congregation and the people of his congressional district seemingly enjoyed his flagrant disrespect for conventionality and authority.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. did have a serious side to his being.  When he took over the pulpit of his father’s church in 1937, Powell also became an outspoken leader in the burgeoning civil rights movement in his native Harlem.  One of the hallmarks of Powell’s service in Congress was his constant crusade for jobs and housing for the Black community.

“Mass action is the most powerful force on earth,” Powell said.  “As long as it’s within the law, it’s not wrong; if the law is wrong, change the law.”

Powell’s huge congregation and community activity made him a logical candidate for public office.  Adam Clayton Powell Jr. ran for and won a seat on the New York City Council in 1941.  In 1944, Powell ran for the House of Representatives and was easily elected.  Powell’s platform was a mixture of expanding civil rights for Blacks, an insistence upon “fair employment practices, and a ban on poll taxes and lynching.”  Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a vocal opponent of the poll tax, which was used in several Southern states, which he considered to be a tool to keep Blacks and poor Whites from voting.  Powell was also the first Black elected from the State of New York to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The people of Harlem were especially delighted by Powell’s election to Congress, but even more so by his willingness to do what many liberal members would not do; stand up and directly confront the segregationists in the House.

That willingness to speak out gave Adam Clayton Powell Jr. an outsized presence in Congress and the media of the day.  A new congressman is usually invisible to everybody but his/her constituents; not so Adam Clayton Powell.  Powell’s vocal challenges frequently infuriated the Southern members of Congress who through a one-party system and the Southern habit of continuing incumbents in office, gave them the seniority to chair many committees in both the House and the United States Senate and wield enormous influence.

In the 1956 election, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell endorsed the reelection of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican.  Tammany Hall, the powerful Democratic organization in New York City, was enraged by Powell’s apostasy and backed a challenger in the Democratic primary in 1958.  Adam Clayton Powell won easily.  In fact, one of Powell’s supporters, Raymond J. Young, became the first Black chieftain of the Tammany organization.

Powell’s decision to back Eisenhower may have been due less to political principles than practical politics.  Reputedly, Powell was having serious difficulties with the Treasury Department over his income taxes.  Powell’s influential endorsement boosted Eisenhower and the GOP ticket in New York and the congressman’s income tax troubles seemingly disappeared.

For years, Congressman Powell attempted to attach an amendment to bills in the House of Representatives that included the expenditure of federal dollars.  The “Powell Amendment” denied federal money to any state that maintained segregation.  Twenty years after Powell’s initial election to Congress, the New York congressman would see his amendment become law through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When President Lyndon Johnson was being pressured to denounce Powell, LBJ told the congressman’s critics, “I know nothing of Adam Powell’s personal conduct, but for me he is the most important committee chairman that I have in Congress and regardless of whatever else he does he gets my bills passed.”

Returned to his seat in Congress by the ruling of the Supreme Court, Powell’s victory was not long-lived.  While he received enormous attention from the media of the day, much of it was focused on negative aspects of his personality or frailties.  Powell was challenged in the Democratic primary by Charles Rangel and lost the election.  For the remainder of his life, Adam Clayton Powell lived in self-imposed exile in Bimini.

Even the King of Harlem was not immune to aging and illness.  A reporter found Powell in a Miami hospital room.  The former congressman’s hair was gray, and he was sitting on the edge of his bed, clearly ailing and in pain.  Accompanied by his secretary and companion, Darlene Expose, Powell lived in a simple two-bedroom house in Bimini.  Powell delighted in telling people Darlene was “Mrs. Powell.”  Even Darlene herself later admitted their union was not a marriage “in the eyes of the law.”

Powell begged off an interview with the reporter and promised to respond to questions later.  Powell explained he had undergone surgery in November of 1971.

“I had prostate trouble,” the ex-congressman said.  “The doctor told me then I was cleared . . . as clean as a whistle.  Then about 4 p.m. yesterday I started bleeding and couldn’t stop.”

Powell died far from Harlem.  In the end, nobody would have loved the spectacle of two “Mrs. Powells” fighting over his body more than Adam Clayton Powell himself.  Even in death, Adam Powell still commanded the spotlight.