Adam Powell

6 June 2016

One of the most powerful and influential civil rights leaders in American history, Adam Clayton Powell was one of the pioneering men ever to be advocates of African-American rights in the 20th century. He was also a Baptist minister and the first African-American Congressman from New York (Haskins 1974, 24).

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Powell was born Adam Clayton Powell Jr. on the 29th of November 1908 in New Haven Connecticut to Adam Sr. who was a Baptist minister and real estate businessman (Ragsdale and Treese 1996, 113) . When Powell was only 15 years old, he enlisted and joined the African Nationalist Power Movement of the then-famous African American rights leader, Marcus Garvey. In 1926, the younger Powell commenced his tertiary studies at Colgate University where he earned his A.B. in 1930 and a year later he earned his M.A. at Columbia University, in religious education.

With regards to Powell’s ministerial career, he was named successor of Adam Powell Sr. as the senior pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. But even before his appointment, Powell, thereafter graduating from Colgate, had initiated the fight for civil rights equality, as he had precipitated the fight of African Americans during the Depression, fighting for the equality in jobs, decent housing and racial discrimination and segregation; his stand was seemingly aggravated because at that time, the Great Depression was at its pinnacle.

One among his famous fights was against the refusal of commercial giants like Bell Telephone to hire African-American employees. Powell initiated mass meetings, rent strikes, boycotts of public transportation, to further forward the grievances of the African American community regarding mistreatment and prejudice and to urge the hiring of African Americans in transit companies. At the worst, Powell criticized the administration for its difference concerning civil rights (Luker et al. 1993, 423).

His cause was only bolstered by his election to the New York City Council in 1941 (Zelizer 2004, 563), where he resumed his fight to provide fellow African-Americans with decent living and fend off destituteness. The latter malady was he was the staunchest adversary of, for the well-known soup kitchen in Harlem was the epitome of his concern; it helped cloth thousands of impoverished Harlem blacks (Wintz and Finkelman 2004, 991).

The almost holy presence of Adam Clayton Powell in the lives of unfortunate was somewhat cemented when he was elected into Congress, the first African American to do so since William Dawson represented Chicago. Even when Powell was already Congressman he was not immune from racism even in Congress, as he was treated as if he were not a man of position who commanded respect and courtesy. Powell was astounded but provoked when he was initially prohibited to use public amenities in the House of Representatives. During the course of his Congressional term, Powell frequently challenged Southern advocates of racial segregation to debates. In the facet of segregation, Powell toiled for the abolition of it in the United States Military. Moreover, he initiated moves to convince the senate to outlaw Jim Crow laws within American jurisdiction.

Later in his public service career and after nearly two decades in Congress, Powell was again doing the American people a service as he was named the chair of the Education and Labor Committee (Ragsdale and Tresse 1996, 115). While in office, he pushed for the increases of the minimum wage, special education for the physically handicapped as well as the improvement of the quality of primary and secondary education. As the 1960’s inched, Powell was instrumental in the implementation of social programs for the disadvantaged of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the “New Frontier” and the “Great Society”, respectively.

 But on a large scale, the “Powell Amendment” was by far his most important contribution, as it called for the stop of the flow of federal funds to organizations practicing racial discrimination. Summing up the great life his great life, Powell merely wanted African Americans to be reborn (Powell 1945, 57).

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