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.
Even Adam Clayton Powell’s most devoted followers recognized that jaunty prevarication was part of his gaudy style. But brutal candor was said to be the stock-in-trade of Malcolm X, and the Autobiography he dictated to the late Alex Haley shortly before his assassination in 1965 has been hailed as a classic of American biography.
Now Bruce Perry’s Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America (Station Hill) suggests that much of Malcolm’s own account of his life should be reclassified as fiction. Perry’s book is more a compilation of raw data than a finished biography, and despite 148 pages of notes, it is often hard for a reader to assess all the evidence that is paraded past. Further word on Malcolm’s tortured, truncated life will have to await a biographer better able to assess the mountain of fresh material Perry has amassed, but it is already clear from the author’s 420-odd interviews with friends, acquaintances, and family members that his subject was a far more complex and troubled man than either his admirers or his critics ever knew.
There is, for example, the matter of the Autobiography ’s opening passage. “When my mother was pregnant with me…,” Malcolm begins, “a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house, brandishing their shotguns and rifles, they shouted for my father to come out.” Louise Little, Malcolm’s mother, faced them down. She was alone with her three children, she told them; her husband was away preaching. “The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings at her that we had better get out of town,” Malcolm continues, “because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my father’s ‘spreading trouble’ among the ‘good’ Negroes of Omaha with the ‘back to Africa’ preachings of Marcus Garvey.” Then they smashed every window in the house with their gun butts and rode off, torches flaring.
From the viewpoint of the angry nationalist Malcolm became, that incident had everything: racist intimidation, Christian hypocrisy, brutal white suppression of black self-assertion. Yet according to Perry’s interview with Malcolm’s mother, it never happened at all. Earl Little did leave Omaha hurriedly, as he had left several other cities, but no one seems to know why. Nor was he later lynched for his defiant commitment to black nationalism; he was run over by a streetcar—and evidently lived long enough to say so, just as the police said at the time.
Nor, Perry suggests, did Malcolm ever fully believe in the white-man-asdevil theory he preached with such apparent relish. And it seems to have been a straightforward struggle for power that forced his break with the Nation of Islam, not, as he claimed, his belated discovery that the Messenger had fathered half a dozen illegitimate children by as many women.
Malcolm was not the first revolutionary to transform the facts of his life into a series of parables designed to further his cause, of course, but Perry goes on to suggest something far more interesting: that it was as much the private outrages committed upon him during his formative years as it was public outrages committed by whites on blacks that turned Malcolm Little into Malcolm X.
His boyhood turns out to have been as stark and loveless as Adam Rowell’s was pampered and serene. His father was a brutal and erratic man who beat his wife and all his seven children—except Malcolm, in whose light skin he apparently delighted, even as he preached the virtues of blackness.
Malcolm’s mother, who raised him alone from the age of six, did beat him; she was openly contemptuous of the fair skin that she and he shared and that came to symbolize illegitimacy for both of them, and when she eventually retreated into madness, Malcolm and his siblings were left to fend for themselves. Bewildered, angry, mistrustful, Malcolm thereafter had to make himself up as he went along.
Bruce Perry will likely face criticism from those who insist that their heroes remain without blemish. Yet by delineating for the first time the actual distance Malcolm had to travel simply to survive, and by exploring the roots of the blind rancor he had just begun to overcome when he was struck down, Perry has provided heroism enough for any fair-minded reader.
And surely the lives of Adam Powell and Malcolm X offer other, more useful lessons, for each demonstrates again that human beings are shaped more by the other human beings who matter most to them than by the anonymous social and historical forces to which ideologues pay easy fealty, and that we are all, finally, as equal in our frailties as we are in our strengths.