When Congressman Charles Rangel became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in January 2007, he assumed a position of power even greater than that of the legendary Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whom he succeeded. Rangel, however, readily concedes to Powell’s flamboyance, rhetorical eloquence and effectiveness as a political leader in Congress.
“I was one of Adam’s biggest supporters,” he said on Tavis Smiley’s PBS television show. “Even when he was in trouble in our neighborhood, they would do something stupid in Washington to cause all of us to rally behind Adam, who was probably the most articulate and most effective legislator we’ve had.”
Powell authored and shepherded numerous bills through Congress during his 25 years as Harlem’s first representative. In 1960, he became chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, a milestone in Black political achievement. There, he oversaw an increase in federal monies to education, expanding the budget from under $500 million to more than $10 billion.
But Powell’s maverick style infuriated many of his colleagues as he pushed through legislation to improve funds for teacher education, universities and the nation’s libraries. His ingenuity—and his vision—was instrumental in the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Powell Amendment, with its antisegregation demands proposed in the early 1950s, laid the groundwork for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The son of a significant community leader and the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem were considerable bona fides of which Powell took full advantage in his political ascent. Born in New Haven, Conn., he came of age in Harlem, later attending Colgate University and earning a master’s in religious education at Columbia University’s Teacher College. Powell’s activism, particularly his commanding presence at the head of demonstrations and rallies protesting the unfair treatment his constituents, was enduring. “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” was one of the chants Powell led to great success, providing him the national exposure that would be critical to his ascendance. Some of his defiance he may have garnered at an early age from the great Black nationalist Marcus Garvey.
“One of the greatest thrills of my life when I was about ten or twelve years old was to sit at Garvey’s feet, or roll down Seventh Avenue with him as he paraded in his white-plumed hat,” he recalled in his autobiography. The emergence of Black Power began with Garvey, Powell wrote, and he was railroaded to prison because of his passion for self-determination.
Powell honed his take-no-prisoners tactics as New York City’s first Black council member in 1941. A year later he published his own short-lived newspaper, The People’s Voice. The next plateau, Congress, was a logical one, if fraught with difficulties. First, there was no specific congressional district in Harlem, which, with a majority Black population, would be the only way Powell could possibly win a seat. As soon as a reapportionment bill was passed creating a congressional district in 1944, Powell leaped at the opportunity. He was elected unopposed.
Compressing Powell’s remarkable record as a public servant in a short article is tantamount to putting a camel through the needle’s eye. There was his defiance of his colleagues who sought to unseat him because of alleged misuse of public funds and other illegal activities, his association with Black Power advocates like Malcolm X.
In 1972, Powell, at 64, was dead.
“I have been accused of almost everything—of being a Black racist, an Uncle Tom, a rabble rouser, a pleasure seeker, a slanderer and much more. But I have never been accused of being a hypocrite, of saying anything I did not believe in, or doing anything I didn’t enjoy,” he wrote.
By Herb Boyd