Adam Clayton Powell

Adam Clayton Powell(Direct Cinema Limited, 1989) Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, once possibly the most powerful African-American in the United States, today is virtually unknown. This powerful documentary, together with Charles Hamilton’s Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (1991), brings to life an individual who was appropriately characterized as “He was a power, but also an unreasonable pain.”

    He seemed an unlikely advocate for civil rights. His light-skinned sister passed as white during her life time. His African-American heritage was only revealed during a background check by his Colgate University fraternity, after which he glorified his blackness. This documentary reveals how Powell thrived on style, surprise, and contradiction.

    He inherited from his father the pulpit of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, from which he continued to enthrall his audience with his humor, irony, and black idioms. He also married several show girls, cavorted with white women, ran for New York City Council on the Communist Party ticket, then, in 1944 was elected as Harlem’s Democratic congressman.

    Congressman Powell was a political loose cannon. He went to the 1955 non-aligned conference in Bandung to defend American racist policies. He also, as a Democrat, established a political relationship with President Eisenhower. He wheeling dealing seemed to have no limits. He was an early leader for Civil Rights, but, in the 1960s, he opposed every Civil Rights leader, waging a vendetta against Martin Luther King, Jr. As he faced indictments for his financial transactions, he struck boldly pragmatic deals/

    During the Kennedy administration Congressman Powell, through seniority, became the first African-American chairman of a major committee: the House Education and Labor Committee. At the apex of his power, Powell seemed to seek self-destruction. He failed to show up for key Civil Rights votes and his antics compelled President Johnson to work through a non-ranking member of his committee.

    Powell, while maintaining his Harlem political base, managed to antagonize virtually everyone in official Washington and in the Civil Rights movement. Ironically, his downfall was linked to his revealing how white narcotics syndicates, with the assistance of police payoffs, were exploiting his Harlem constituents. His arrogance on this matter, together with his outrageous and taunting personal manner, prompted a special ethics committee investigation. Spearheaded by congressmen Wayne Hays and Arch Moore (both of whom subsequently were disgraced for the misdeeds), this committee resulted in Powell being expelled from Congress.

    Powell was fading from history years before he died of cancer in 1972.

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