- Historic Sites
Adam Powell And Malcolm X
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
On summer evenings toward the end of his life, Robert Todd Lincoln liked to be driven up the road from Hildene, his home at Manchester, Vermont, to the Equinox House for dinner. It was a charming resort hotel, marred for the old man only by the black bellboys who hurried out to open the door of his RollsRoyce. The Emancipator’s son had come to dislike blacks, and when any dared touch his gleaming door handle, he angrily rapped their knuckles with his cane. To keep Mr. Lincoln happy, the manager paid one youth, lightskinned enough to pass for white, ten extra dollars a week just to meet his limousine. Lincoln was said to be so pleased to be greeted by an apparently white servant that he tipped him an additional silver dollar every time he was ushered into the hotel.
The lucky bellboy was Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who gleefully recounted the story in his 1971 autobiography, Adam by Adam . As Charles V. Hamilton’s solid, balanced life Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (Atheneum) demonstrates, this was just the first of many times that Powell would profit from the special lunacy of race relations in America. It would be part of his appeal to his black constituents all his life that he had deliberately chosen to identify himself with them rather than with the whites among whom he might have lived in greater ease.
He was brought up as the pampered son of the most influential man in Harlem, the Reverend Adam Powell, Sr., pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, whose pulpit he would one day inherit as his own. A frail, beautiful, goldenhaired little boy, he was doted upon by his parents, his older sister, and the ladies of his father’s congregation. That rarefied upbringing armed him with a brash self-confidence that stayed with him almost to the end, but it also rendered him perennially delighted at his own naughtiness, unhappy whenever the spotlight shifted from him even for a moment, and unable finally to distinguish between his own cause and that of the dispossessed people who believed in him.
He first rose to prominence in the 1930s, leading boycotts and picketing campaigns; persuading churchgoers, Communists, and black nationalists all to march together; forcing small but symbolically important job concessions for blacks from city bus companies, Macy’s, Gimbels, New York Telephone, the 1939 world’s fair.
He became the first black to serve on the City Council, in 1941, and when redistricting made it possible for a black to represent Harlem three years later, he won both the Democratic and Republican primaries and then was elected unopposed, the first AfricanAmerican congressman ever elected from a Northeastern state. He would be reelected twelve times.
During the Truman and Elsenhower administrations he served as a relentless, self-styled “irritant,” lashing the leaders of both parties for their failure to deliver on civil rights, and attaching to bill after bill the Powell amendment, which forbade the use of federal funds to any state that practiced segregation. He also personally integrated the congressional barbershop, dining room, and gymnasium, and took special pleasure in tormenting Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi, who had declared his election a “disgrace” and vowed never to sit next to him. Whenever Rankin appeared on the floor, Powell made a point of sitting as close as he could; once, the press reported, Rankin was forced to move five times during a single day’s session.
In 1961 Powell became chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and after the death of John Kennedy he helped Lyndon Johnson enact some sixty major pieces of social legislation and saw the Powell amendment enshrined in Title Six of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But events and his own weaknesses overtook him. The civil rights movement spawned new spokesmen whose emergence he deeply resented. When a Harlem court case went bad, he refused to accept the verdict, was eventually found guilty of criminal contempt, and was effectively barred from visiting Harlem. And his always colorful private life veered toward alcoholic caricature. Cornered, he blamed white racism for his troubles. Throughout his whole career, Hamilton writes, Powell “required that everyone—friend or foe—question whether his being black was the real reason he was attacked so often.”
It was always a nice question. He was certainly not the sole congressman ever to fail to appear for important votes, put mistresses on his payroll, pad his expenses, fail to file his income taxes, find excuses for lengthy sojourns in the sun at the taxpayers’ expense. But the others did not boast of it. “I do not do more than any other member of Congress,” he liked to say, “and by the grace of God, I’ll not do less.”
His constituents had always forgiven his excesses—one of theirs was doing what whites did, after all, and getting away with it—and after Congress finally voted to exclude him in 1967, they stubbornly reelected him one last time, by a margin of 7-1. But stripped of his seniority and stricken with cancer and shattered to find that he was no longer the center of things, he was unable to sustain a comeback and died five years later.