Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a one-a-of-kind celebrity when I was growing up in New York and more a hero in my household than the Rev. Martin Luther King. He pastored the first Black mega church, became one of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress and partied like a rap star. But many of the benefits we take for granted today – such as federal minimum wage and education for the physically challenged – we can thank Powell for.
Powell (1908-1972) was organizing boycotts and picket lines when King was still in high school. He spearheaded protests to desegregate Manhattan businesses – dependent on the Black consumer – creating thousands of jobs. In 1945, he transitioned from civil-rights activist to politician when Harlemites elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives. They sent him back to the Congress 11 times. (Rep. Charles Rangel holds his seat now).
By 1965, Powell was the most powerful Black politician in America. As chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, he was the torchbearer for President Johnson “Great Society” program. He sponsored nearly 60 bills within five years and pushed through laws to train the unemployed, build schools and libraries, provide protections to equalize pay for women and expand funding for college education. Unfortunately, his flamboyant lifestyle and scandals at the end of his career have overshadowed his contributions to improving the lives of all Americans.
Powell followed his father into the pulpit of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. By the time he died, membership had more than doubled to 10,000. But Powell had a wild side. He married entertainers, he smoked, he drank – and he didn’t care. His controversial behavior and his legal problems caught up with him. He was expelled from Congress for alleged misused of funds, corruption and his long absences from Washington. Harlem re-elected him anyway. Not to be outdone, the legislators seated him but he was stripped of his 20+ years of seniority – and power.
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Powell had been illegally expelled. By then, it was too late. The controversies and the legal battles had taken their toll on his career and his health. In 1970, Powell lost his first election. He retired to the Bahamas where he died two years later. They broke him, but he never let them see it. His most famous saying: “Keep the faith, baby!” is also the title of a biography and documentary of his life.