As the first African-American to represent New York in Congress, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is best remembered as an unapologetic and unrelenting crusader for black civil rights and voice against racial discrimination.
On this day in 1967, Powell’s legacy was cemented forever when he won a special election to fill the vacancy caused by his exclusion from the House of Representatives.
During his 12 terms in the House of Representative (representing Harlem in Congress from 1945-1971), Powell’s brash style and continual introduction of legislation aimed at prohibiting the unequal treatment of blacks irked many conservative members of Congress.
“I think that people are still fascinated by him because he was a person who was a leader in the black community not just in New York, but all across the country. He had the ability to look at the nation’s white power structure in the eye and tell him exactly what he thought. He was the blueprint for what all black elected officials should be: he was bold and passionate.”
Powell worked to outlaw lynching and the poll tax as well as to end discrimination in the armed services, employment, housing and transportation.
In addition, he authorized a wide range of federal programs including minimum wage increases, school lunch initiatives, education and training for the deaf and aid for public schools and libraries.
Still, several of his southern congressional colleagues often characterized him as an arrogant, political irritant.
Never one to cower in the spotlight, he relished pushing buttons in the name of racial and social equality for his constituents.
But his political ambitions only brought further scrutiny. In 1958, he was indicted for income tax evasion by a federal grand jury. (The charge was later dropped after a hung jury.)
Powell was also criticized for payroll discrepancies, taking trips abroad using congressional funds, and being frequently absent for House votes. In response to his spotty attendance, Powell famously quipped:
“You don’t have to be there if you know which calls to make, which buttons to push, which favors to call in.”
Add that to his refusal to pay the judgment in a widely publicized 1963 slander case judgment, and Powell soon emerged as that congressman folks on Capitol Hill loved to hate.
And hate they did. On January 9, 1967, the House Democratic Caucus planned to strip Powell of his chairmanship of the Education and Labor Committee upon further investigation of the allegations against him. Instead of fining and censuring him, the House voted to exclude him from the 90th Congress.
However, Harlem voters showed Congress where their allegiances remained when they re-elected Powell with 86 percent of the vote the following month.
The overwhelming support exemplified the respect he had from his faithful voters.
As we recall his accomplishments today, Powell’s most famous slogan still resonates:
“Keep the faith, baby; spread it gently and walk together, children.”