Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
November 29, 1908 – April 4, 1972
Pastor and Politician

The Reverend and Honorable Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was an politician and pastor who represented the Harlem section of Manhattan in New York City in the United States House of Representatives between 1945 and 1971. He was the first African-American elected to Congress from New York. He became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee in 1961. As committee chairman he supported the passage of important social legislation, but was eventually removed from his seat by the Democratic members-elect of the 90th Congress following allegations of corruption.

Powell was born in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was a Baptist minister and headed the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York.

Powell attended public school at Townsend Harris High School. He studied at the City College of New York and Colgate University as an undergraduate. In 1931 he received an MA degree in religious education from Columbia University. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established by African Americans.

During the Depression years, Powell, a handsome and charismatic figure, became a prominent civil rights leader in Harlem, New York, where he succeeded his father in 1937 as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church. He developed a formidable public following in the Harlem community through his crusades for jobs and housing. As chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Employment, he organized mass meetings, rent strikes and public campaigns, forcing companies and utilities, and Harlem Hospital to hire black workers. Powell organized a picket line during the 1939 New York World's Fair at the Fair's executive offices in the Empire State Building; as a result, the number of black employees was increased from about 200 to 732. A bus boycott in 1941 led to the hiring of 200 black workers by the transit authority. Powell also led a fight in 1941 to have drugstores in Harlem hire Negro pharmacists.

In 1937 he succeeded his father as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church. In 1941 he was elected to the New York City Council as the city's first Black council representative with the aid of New York City's use of the Single Transferable Vote. He received 65,736 votes, the third best total among the six successful council candidates. "Mass action is the most powerful force on earth," Powell once said, adding, "As long as it is within the law, it's not wrong; if the law is wrong, change the law." He was elected to Congress in 1944.


In 1944 Powell was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the 22nd congressional district, which included Harlem. He was the first black Congressman from New York, and the first from any Northern state other than Illinois in the Post-Reconstruction Era.

As one of only two black Congressmen, Powell challenged the informal ban on black representatives using Capitol facilities reserved for white members only. He took black constituents to dine with him in the "whites only" House restaurant. He clashed with the many segregationists in his own party.

In 1956 Powell broke party ranks and supported Dwight D. Eisenhower for reelection, saying that the Democratic platform's civil rights plank was too weak.

In 1958 he survived a determined effort by the Tammany Hall machine to oust him in the Democratic primary election.

In 1960, Powell forced Bayard Rustin to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) by threatening to discuss Rustin's "immoral" homosexuality in Congress. He was concerned that questions about Rustin adversely affected the reputation and effectiveness of the SCLC.

In 1961, after 15 years in Congress, Powell became chairman of the powerful Education and Labor Committee. In this position he presided over federal programs for minimum wage increases, education and training for the deaf, vocational training and standards for wages and work hours, as well as aid to elementary and secondary education. He orchestrated passage of the backbone of President John Kennedy's "New Frontier" legislation. He also was instrumental in the passage of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" social programs.

Powell's committee passed a record number of bills for a single session, a record which still stands as of 2008. Powell steered some 50 bills through Congress.

He was instrumental in passing legislation that made lynching a federal crime, as well as bills that desegregated public schools. He challenged the Southern practice of charging Blacks a poll tax to vote, and stopped racist congressmen from saying the word "nigger" in sessions of Congress.

By the mid-1960s Powell was being increasingly criticized for mismanagement of the committee budget, taking trips abroad at public expense (including travel to his retreat on the Bahamian isle of Bimini), and missing sittings of his committee. He was also under attack in his district, where his refusal to pay a slander judgment made him subject to arrest. He spent increasing amounts of time in Florida.

Following allegations that Powell had misappropriated Committee funds for his personal use and other charges including evading a subpoena in New York and failing to appear on a post judgment hearing involving the slander case he lost, in January 1967 the House Democratic Caucus stripped Powell of his committee chairmanship. The full House refused to seat him until completion of an investigation by the Judiciary Committee. Powell urged his supporters to "keep the faith, baby" while the investigation went on. On March 1 the House voted 307 to 116 to exclude him. Powell said "On this day, the day of March in my opinion, the end of the United States of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave."

Powell won the special election in April to fill the vacancy caused by his exclusion, but did not take his seat. He sued in Powell v. McCormack to retain his seat. In June 1969 the Supreme Court ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell, a duly elected member. He returned to the House, but without his seniority and was ordered to pay a fine over repayment of misappropriated funds. Again his absenteeism was increasingly noted.

In June 1970 Powell was defeated in the Democratic primary by Charles B. Rangel. In fall 1970, he failed to get on the ballot for the November election as an Independent. He resigned as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and moved to Bimini. Rangel has continued to represent the district, as of 2009.


In April 1972, Powell became gravely ill and was flown to a Miami hospital from his home in Bimini. He died there on April 4, 1972, at the age of 63, from acute prostatitis, according to contemporary newspaper accounts. A few days later, his ashes were carried aloft by a plane and scattered over his beloved Bimini.

Personal Life

His first wife was nightclub entertainer Isabel Washington (sister of actress Fredi Washington). Her son Preston, from a previous marriage, was adopted by Powell.

Powell and his second wife, the singer Hazel Scott, had a son, Adam Clayton Powell III. Adam Clayton Powell III is Vice Provost for Globalization at the University of Southern California and one of the world's leading authorities on the use of the Internet for journalists. He named his son Adam Clayton Powell IV.

Powell and his third wife, Puerto Rican Yvette Diago Powell, had a son Adam Clayton Powell Diago. This son changed his name to Adam Clayton Powell IV when he became a member of the New York State Assembly. (This caused confusion because his nephew, only 8 years younger than he, already was named Adam Clayton Powell IV.)

A. C. Powell IV, the politician, named his son Adam Clayton Powell V. He is a champion swimmer at Columbia University in New York.

Family Scandal

In 1967 Yvette Diago, the mother of Adam Clayton Powell IV and third wife of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. made national headlines when she was subpoenaed by a U.S. Congressional committee with respect to her theft of state funds. Yvette Diago admitted to the committee that she had been on the congressional payroll of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. from 1961 until 1967, even though she had left the U.S. and moved back to Puerto Rico in 1961.

As reported by Time Magazine, Yvette Diago continued living in Puerto Rico and "performed no work at all" yet remained on the payroll, where her salary climbed to $20,578 until she was exposed, and fired, in January 1967.

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