Before the battle for Civil Rights was waged in the South, it was fought in the North. And foremost among those northern Black leaders who spearheaded the charge for equality was Adam Clayton Powell Jr. As a local leader in pre-World War Two Harlem, Powell fought successfully to end discrimination in hiring and in public facilities. As the first- ever African-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York, Powell placed himself at the forefront of the passage of Civil Rights and anti-poverty legislation. In a way, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was the archetype for the modern Black politician in America. As such, he took those first steps in the long walk that eventually led to Barack Obama crossing the threshold of the White House.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born on November 29, 1908 in New Haven, Connecticut to Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Mattie Shaffer. After moving to Harlem, Powell, Jr. published a regular column called “The Soap Box” in the Amsterdam News, a well-reputed black newspaper for Harlemites, and was able to establish himself as a voice for the people. In 1937, he succeeded his father as the head pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. As a prominent leader of New York City’s Black community, Powell fought ceaselessly for the abolition of unfair, racist policies and practices. He led successful mass actions of all kinds: rent strikes, bus boycotts, and protests against the hiring practices of the 1939 World’s Fair and Harlem Hospital. Powell helped to create several organizations like the Harlem People’s Committee, who espoused his slogan “Don’t buy where you can’t work.” But Powell was not yet satisfied with the projects he saw to completion as a community leader, and ran for Congress in his district.
In 1944, he became the first African-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York, and one of only two in the country at the time. Powell was a constant agitator in the House of Representatives and passed legislation to assure equal pay. He campaigned for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aligning himself with a class of New Deal Democrats who hoped to create jobs for the working poor. Powell also helped create a Minimum Wage Bill, the Manpower Development and Training Act and the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Powell also desegregated the “whites only” facilities of the U.S. Capitol.
While Powell’s critics often condemned his flamboyant style, it was the way he drew attention to social issues that may have been neglected otherwise that made him so successful. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. died in 1972 but has left a legacy with his sons and nephew of the same name who have gone on to lead their local political struggles. President Obama is surely an incarnation of the great Adam Clayton Powell, a community organizer who rose to become the first of his kind in high office, giving hope to legions of under-represented Americans.