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Clayton Powell, Jr.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on November 29, 1908. His father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was a Baptist minister and subsequently became head of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Educated in the public schools of New York City, Powell went on to study at City College of New York, Colgate University (graduated 1930), Columbia University (MA in religious education, 1932), and Shaw University (graduated 1934).
After college Powell became a prominent civil rights leader in Harlem. As chairman of the Coordinating Committee for Employment, he organized mass meetings, rent strikes and public campaigns in an effort to force companies, utilities, and the Harlem Hospital to hire black workers. In 1937, he succeeded his father as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and subsequently put the church in the forefront of the civil rights movement in New York City. In 1941, he became the first Black to be elected to the New York City Council, in which position he was able to score a number of major victories for the poor black community he represented.
In 1944, Powell was elected as a Democrat to represent Harlem in the United States House of Representatives, becoming the first Black to represent New York in the U.S. House, and one of only two Blacks in Congress at the time. Continuing his civil rights campaign, Powell openly challenged the "whites only" facilities in Washington, and frequently invited his black constituents to dine with him in the "whites only" House restaurant. In 1956, he broke with his own party to support President Dwight D. Eisenhower's re-election bid, saying that the Democratic Party's civil rights plank was too weak.
In 1961, Powell became chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. In this capacity, he presided over legislation establishing federal programs for minimum wage increases, education and training for the deaf, vocational training, standards for wages and work hours, aid to elementary and secondary education, and more. He orchestrated passage of the major portion of President John F. Kennedy's "New Freedom" program, as well as President Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society" program.
By the mid-1960's, Powell was coming under increasing criticism for mismanaging the committee budget, for missing committee meetings, and for taking trips abroad at public expense. His ownership of a private retreat on the island of Bimini in The Bahamas, combined with other ostentatious displays of wealth, did not set well with many of his constituents, a great number of whom lived at or below the poverty level. In January 1967, the House Democratic Caucus stripped him of his committee chairmanship, and the full House refused to seat him until completion of a Judiciary Committee investigation. In March, the House voted 307 to 116 to exclude him. Although Powell subsequently won a special election held to fill the vacancy caused by his exclusion, he never appeared to take his seat.
Powell subsequently took his case to the Supreme Court, which, in June 1969, ruled in Powell's favor. Powell returned to the House that year, but without his seniority, and soon again came under fire for his chronic absenteeism.
In June 1970, Powell was defeated in the Democratic primary by Charles B. Rangel. He subsequently resigned from the Abyssinian Baptist Church and moved to Bimini. He died in Miami, Florida, on April 4, 1972, from complications following prostate surgery.
Powell's life and career were featured in the 2002 cable television film Keep the Faith, Baby, starring Harry Lennix as Powell.
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This page was last updated on May 31, 2017.