February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
On the evening of March 1 the House voted 307 to 116 to exclude Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., from the 90th Congress. A jumble of charges had been assembled against Powell, who had represented New York’s Harlem district in Congress since 1945. These included misuse of public funds, evasion of the New York courts, absenteeism from congressional business, and generally living like an unapologetic playboy at the public’s expense.
Powell had been a dashing and defiant young congressman when he arrived, a black politician who spoke with exhilarating bluntness at a time when black political leaders were rare in the country. He later became a power broker and effective student of the Washington game as chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor while simultaneously railing against the “white power structure.”
Powell was, in fact, playing dominoes and drinking Cutty Sark with milk at Bimini’s End of the World pub when news of his exclusion came over the radio. “Why should I be angry,” he asked a prodding reporter, “with all these lovely friends I have on Bimini?”
The congressman had taken junkets to foreign cities and from 1961 to 1966 had paid his estranged wife, who lived in Puerto Rico, a staff salary. The investigating committee also found that dozens of plane tickets bought with staff credit cards had in fact been used by others. In the face of these charges, Powell claimed two “standards of conduct” were being employed, one for “white Congressmen and one for Negro Congressmen.” Powell noted that Connecticut’s senator Thomas Dodd, censured by the Senate in June for misuse of public funds, was allowed to serve.
The House could exclude Powell, but it could not prevent him from entering April’s special election to fill his Harlem seat. He won it, and won the general election that November with 80 percent of the vote. Then, rather than be seated as a freshman congressman, he sued his way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in June 1969 that the House had overstepped its bounds.
The Court decision was Adam Clayton Powell’s last hurrah. He was eventually seated, but as what he called a “part-time congressman,” since the twenty-five thousand dollars he’d paid to his wife was deducted from his salary. The fight had tired but not chastened him; his attendance in the House was no better once he returned “part-time.” “It would be all too easy to say that white America destroyed him,” the writer Julius Lester observed after Powell’s death, “but that would not be the whole truth.… Black people changed and he didn’t. His way of life had once been an act of rebellion; it became nothing more than self-indulgence.” By 1970 it had been years since Powell had been in a tough campaign, and he lost to a smart, young challenger in the primary, Charles Rangel.