On 9 June King received an appeal from Powell requesting money for both his reelection bid and his legal defense against charges of tax evasion.1 The following day King received a letter from Stanley Levison advising him to back Powell with “careful phrasing to indicate that the support is conditioned on his adherence to principle” and to “provide an out should he blunder seriously and require criticism at some later time.”2 Levison also enclosed a draft of a letter to Powell written with Bayard Rustin’s assistance. King made minor changes and added the final sentence before sending the following.3
Congressman Adam Clayton Powell
House of Representatives
I have been reading of your efforts to be reelected to Congress. I am deeply concerned. For many years you have been a militant champion of justice not only as a Congressman from Harlem, but necessarily as a spokesman for disenfranchised millions in the South.
You are now being assailed with desperate weapons of political destruction because you exercised independence and acted with militant singleness of purpose. 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.
There are a number of people who have approaches on specific questions which have differed from your own and such difference may arise again. Nevertheless, we should all agree on one thing[emdash!!] political independence involves putting the struggle for justice and equality above political parties. For taking such a principled stand, noone should be victimized. Rather, you are entitled to our full support. Be assured that so long as you adhere to the principles of independence and justice this support will continue. Beyond this fact, many of us realize that the efforts to obstruct your return to Congress as a Democrat, maywell be designed to eliminate your becoming Chairman of the vitally important Committee of Education and Labor. This committee could have a major effect on the economic and educational opportunities for Negroes throughout the country and especially in the South.
I feel the unity of all decent thinking Americans is an obligation, when a calloused effort is made to single out an individual leader who symbolizes the Negroes’ determination to realize full equality in every aspect of American life.
I recall, vividly, that when the Montgomery Bus Protest was at a critical point, you continually supported us and spoke to the sorely pressed people who were suffering provocation and insults and urged that they follow the path of nonviolence, advocated by their leaders.
The people warmly appreciated your support. Be assured that in their hearts they are returning that support now conscious that our help to each other against unfair attacks, welds us into a force capable of reaching freedom by the path of justice, honor and nonviolence.
While I cannot speak for the leaders of the South, nor for all the people, I can assure you that you have my wholehearted support.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
1. On 8 May a grand jury in New York City indicted Powell for income tax evasion. Powell simultaneously faced opposition in the campaign primary from the New York County Democratic organization, whose members were angered by Powell’s endorsement of President Eisenhower in 1956. Nevertheless, Powell easily won the primary in August and the general election in November. In 1961, the Justice Department dropped its tax case against Powell.
2. Levison added that he and Rustin agreed that Powell’s plight could not be dismissed as “an issue of partisan politics,” nor did they think King could afford to remain silent: “It strikes at the heart of the overriding question for the whole movement. . . the right to be politically independent and not to be treated as the property of any one party. In this sense it merges with the crusade for enfranchisement because in a long range sense securing the vote could become meaningless if the dominant political leaders can dictate to the movement who its leaders shall be, and what program they may pursue. Therefore the personality of Adam is secondary.”
3. On 12 June SCLC released a version of this letter to the press that did not include the two paragraphs referring to Powell’s involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott. A Montgomery Advertiser editorial later criticized King for his support of the “Harlem hellmouth.” The newspaper questioned how “a man of King’s supposed academic accomplishments could be naive enough to swallow . . . Powell’s pious ravings about being persecuted” (“Rev. King and Rev. Powell,” Montgomery Advertiser 21 June 1958).
MLKP-MBU. Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass.