Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
As a minister and congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was a prominent and controversial figure in the struggle for civil rights. Although Powell and Martin Luther King were initially supportive of one another’s work, King lost trust in Powell in 1960, after the congressman threatened to lie to the press about King’s friendship with his advisor Bayard Rustin. Despite their differences the two continued to publicly cooperate for several years; however, their relationship further eroded when Powell publicly renounced nonviolence in 1968.
Born 29 November 1908, in New Haven, Connecticut, Powell grew up in New York City, where his father was the pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. After graduating from Colgate University in 1930, Powell returned to Harlem, where he became an assistant pastor at Abyssinian while earning a master’s degree in religious education from Columbia University (1932). When his father retired in 1937, Powell became the new pastor of Abyssinian, ministering to a congregation of over 10,000 members. Powell used the pulpit to work for social change, organizing his community around issues related to discrimination in employment and government services. Powell headed the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, which succeeded in opening up jobs to African Americans at New York stores, utility companies, and city buses.
In 1941 Powell became the first African American elected to the New York City Council. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives three years later, representing a newly formed congressional district in Harlem. In 1950, in collaboration with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he put forward a legislative rider barring federal funds from segregated institutions. Although the rider did not pass, Powell reintroduced the legislation so many times that it became known as the Powell Amendment. The amendment’s content was eventually incorporated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In February 1956 Powell appealed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower to support the Montgomery bus boycott and take responsibility for “safeguarding the lives, physical security and civil liberties of the 115 Negroes arrested for peaceably and nonviolently trying to obtain what the Constitution promises” (Powell, 22 February 1956). Powell personally contributed to the Montgomery Improvement Association and called King a “brilliant young prophet” (Powell, 17 May 1957). At King’s invitation, Powell later joined the advisory committee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Powell and King traveled together to Ghana to celebrate that country’s independence in 1957. When Powell was facing a difficult reelection the following year, King pledged his “wholehearted support,” writing: “As I see it, the attacks upon you are in reality an effort to destroy the Negroes’ political independence, and remove from the legislature an uncompromising voice” (Papers 4:421).
In the summer of 1960, Powell threatened to tell the press that King was involved in a homosexual affair with Rustin unless King called off plans to demonstrate at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. “I have always vigorously defended you against your most severe critics,” King wrote Powell in response. “In spite of all,” King told him, “I will hold nothing in my heart against you and I will not go to the press to answer or condemn you” (Papers 5:481). The incident blew over without much public scandal, and relations between King and Powell appeared to normalize. When Powell was named chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee the following year, King wrote him praising his “unswerving dedication and loyalty without compromise to the civil rights struggle of the Negro people” (King, 28 January 1961). As chairman, Powell played a crucial role in moving Lyndon Johnson’s progressive War on Poverty legislation through Congress.
Although they continued to encounter patches of disagreement, King spoke occasionally at Abyssinian Baptist Church in the early 1960s, raising funds for SCLC. Powell’s influential career was undermined by scandal, including allegations of tax evasion and misuse of government funds. Following an investigation of Powell’s conduct, in 1967 the House voted not to seat him. He challenged the decision, winning a special election to fill his own seat, but was barred from Congress. In March 1968 Powell rejected nonviolence and told an assembled crowd of thousands, “The day of Martin Luther King has come to an end" (Johnson, “Cheering Harlem Throngs”). King was assassinated less than two weeks later. Powell won reelection, and in 1969 the Supreme Court ruled that his expulsion from Congress was unconstitutional. Powell was reinstated, but without seniority. In 1970 he lost a close reelection bid to Charles Rangel. Powell died two years later on 4 April 1972.
Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Introduction, in Papers 5:31–32.
Thomas A. Johnson, “Cheering Harlem Throngs Walk with Powell in Rain,” New York Times, 24 March 1968.
King to Powell, 10 June 1958, in Papers 4:420–421.
King to Powell, 24 June 1960, in Papers 5:480–481.
King to Powell, 28 January 1961, MLKJP-GAMK.
Powell, “Address at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom,” 17 May 1957, MLKP-MBU.
Powell to Eisenhower, 22 February 1956, WCFO-KAbE.