Childhood & Early Life
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was born on November 29, 1908, in New Haven, Connecticut to Adam Clayton Powell Senior and Mattie Buster Shaffer. Both his parents were of mixed racial origin and because of that young Powell was born with light complexion, blond hair and hazel eyes. He also had a sister, named Blanche, ten years his senior.
Immediately after the birth of his son, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. became the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, located at Harlem. Consequently, the family shifted to Harlem and eventually settled there. Though born poor Adam Sr. had worked his way up and consequently, Adam Junior grew up in comfortable surroundings.
Adam Junior passed out from Townsend Harris High School and enrolled at City College of New York. However, he spent much of time having fun and attending nightclubs. Hearing this, his father took him out of the college and put him in Colgate University as a freshman.
Adam Jr. graduated from Colgate University in 1930 with a BA degree. He next joined Columbia University and in 1933, he earned his MA in Religious Education from there. He then joined Shaw University and graduated from there in 1934.
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After passing out from the Shaw University Adam Clayton Powell Junior was ordained into the service of the church. He then began to assist his father both in preaching and in charitable works. He also reached out to the community and began to learn about their problems from close quarters.
Along with working as an assistant pastor, Adam Jr. joined a local newspaper as a columnist. This helped him to reach out to a wider section of the population and gather popular support. Two years later in 1937, he succeeded his father as the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Under him, the church began to expand rapidly and soon its membership reached 13,000. With such a big following, he started demanding fair job opportunity and affordable housing facilities for the blacks and used ingenious methods to make sure his demands are heard.
Apart from organizing mass meetings, public campaigns and rent strikes he advocated boycotting of those shops which did not hire black workers. His call, ‘Shop Only Where You Can Work’ forced many white shop owners to hire black workers. Those who did not had to shut down.
He also took active part in forming Greater New York Coordinating Committee (GNYCC) for Employment. When in 1939, World’s Fair was being organized in New York the organization led a picket in front of their headquarters in Empire State Building and forced the authority to hire 732 black workers instead of original 200.
In 1941, Powell gave a call for bus boycott under aegis of United Negro Bus Strike Committee. As a result of this movement a quota system was established in New York and for the first time black bus drivers were employed. In all, 200 African American workers got jobs.
In 1941, Adam Clayton Powell Junior joined politics and was elected to the New York City Council by a huge margin. He was the first black man to be elected to this position. He served the council till 1945 and continued working for the betterment of the African American population.
In 1942, Powell gave up his newspaper job to cofound another newspaper called ‘People’s Voice’. Apart from writing regular columns in the paper he also acted as its editor in chief.
In 1944, he decided to enter the national political arena and won the nomination of the Democratic Party for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. He won the election in 1945. This made him the first African American to be elected from New York.
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More importantly, and until 1955, he was one of the two black Congressmen in the House. Thus, he was more or less alone in his fight against racial segregation. He fought not only for fair employment opportunity for the blacks; but also raised his voice to make lynching a federal offence.
In those days the southern states imposed ‘vote tax’, which required people to pay a tax at the time of registration. Since most African American people were too poor to pay such tax, they were effectively disfranchised. Thus their voice was never heard. Powell also raised his voice against this and fought against his own party members on these issues.
During this period, he worked in close contact with National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He proposed federal assistance should be denied to those states, which practiced race segregation. Such proposals not only angered the southerners, but also embarrassed the liberals. The idea was later incorporated in the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the 1950s, Powell attended many international conferences. The major among them were the Parliamentary World Conference in 1951 and Asian African Conference in 1955. He was an observer in the 1955 conference.
The State Department had initially objected to the last mentioned trip because they thought Powell might embarrass the country due to his views on the racial issues. However, he balanced his concern with enthusiastic defense of the United States and that earned him many friends at home.
However, the black’s civil rights remained his utmost concern. In 1956, he went against party line to support the reelection of President Dwight D. Eisenhower because he found the civil right platform of the Democratic Party to be too weak. Later, he changed his stand and criticized Eisenhower for little action.
Powell’s relentless crusade against racial abuse created many enemies. In 1958, the Democratic Party machinery in New York made a strong effort to oust him. He not only won the election, but went on to win the subsequent elections as well. In all, he won eleven consecutive elections.
In 1961, Adam Clayton Powel Jr. became the first black Chairman of the powerful Labor and Education Committee. Under his aegis, the committee passed as many as fifty social and economic bills. Among them we can mention minimum wage act, anti poverty act, bills supporting loans to college students, education and training for the deaf etc.
In mid-1960s, Powell came under heavy criticism for mismanaging his committee's budget and taking trips abroad at public expense. His detractors used this opportunity and in 1967, he was stripped of his membership of the House.
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He won back his seat in 1968. However, he was deprived of his seniority and also the chairmanship of the committee he headed. In 1969, the US Supreme Court ruled that the act of the House was unconstitutional.
By that time, his health was failing and his detractors were still very strong. In 1970, Powell lost the Democratic primary election and quit politics. The next year he resigned as the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. He then retired and spent rest of his life in the island of Bimini in The Bahamas.
Personal Life & Legacy
Adam Clayton married his first wife Isabel Washington in 1933. She was a singer and regularly performed at nightclubs. She had a son named Preston from her earlier marriage. Powell adopted him. They got divorced in 1945.
In 1945, he married Hazel Scot, also a singer. The couple had a son name Adam Clayton Powell III. He grew up to be a famed academician. The marriage ended in a divorce in 1960.
Soon after divorcing Hazel in 1960 Powell married Yvette Flores Diago from Puerto Rico. They had a son named Adam Clayton Powell Diago. However, the boy later changed his name to Adam Clayton IV. This marriage too ended in 1965.
In the beginning of 1972, Powel became gravely ill with acute prostatitis. He was then staying in Bimini. He was flown to Miami and died on April 4, 1972, at the age of 63. After his funeral, his ashes were strewn over Bimini by his son Adam Clayton Powell III.