Biography of Adam Clayton Powell, Congressman and Activist

Civil Rights Leader and Politician

Clayton Powell Jr
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. urging President Nixon to reactivate the Warren Commission to investigate the slaying of Martin Luther King.

Bettmann / Getty Images

A U.S. congressman, civil rights activist, and minister, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born November 29, 1908, in New Haven, Connecticut. As his father had before him, Powell served as pastor of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. He got his start in politics after his election to the New York City Council, an experience that paved the way for his lengthy but controversial career in Congress.

Fast Facts: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

  • Occupation: Politician, civil rights activist, pastor
  • Born: November 29, 1908 in New Haven, Connecticut
  • Died: April 4, 1972 in Miami, Florida
  • Parents: Mattie Fletcher Schaffer and Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
  • Spouses: Isabel Washington, Hazel Scott, Yvette Flores Diago 
  • Children: Adam Clayton Powell III, Adam Clayton Powell IV, Preston Powell
  • Education: City University of New York; Colgate University; Columbia University
  • Key Accomplishments: New York City councilman, U.S. congressman, Abyssinian Baptist Church pastor
  • Famous Quote: “Unless man is committed to the belief that all mankind are his brothers, then he labors in vain and hypocritically in the vineyards of equality.”

Early Years

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. grew up in New York City to racially mixed parents of European and African descent. The family, which included Powell’s older sister Blanche, had left Connecticut for New York just six months after his birth. His father was named pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, a prestigious religious institution that first opened in 1808. During Powell Sr.’s tenure, Abyssinian became one of the nation’s largest churches, making the Powells a very well-known and respected family. Eventually, the younger Powell would make his mark on the famous church.

Powell attended New York’s Townsend Harris High School; after graduation, he began his studies at the City College of New York, switching to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, in 1926. His racially ambiguous appearance allowed Powell to pass for white—be it unintentionally or otherwise. This helped him navigate life in a predominantly white educational institution when most African Americans attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In 1930, he graduated from Colgate and immediately enrolled in Columbia University, earning a master’s degree in 1931 in religious education. With this degree, he could pursue the ministry profession, the same career path as his pastor father. But Powell would be equal parts preacher and activist. 

In his role as Abyssinian Church’s assistant minister and business manager, Powell organized a campaign against Harlem Hospital for firing five doctors on the basis of race. In 1932, he helped the vulnerable residents of Harlem by launching an Abyssinian community outreach program that gave clothes, food, and jobs to the needy. The following year, he married Cotton Club performer Isabel Washington, the sister of actress Fredi Washington.

Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City
Exterior view of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. served as senior pastor until 1970. Photo circa 1923. George Rinhart / Getty Images

The Making of a Politician

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. flourished as an activist, organizing rent strikes, mass actions, and civil rights campaigns against businesses and agencies that engaged in anti-black discrimination. In 1937, he became the head pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church but managed to remain a community activist. For example, he pressured the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City to employ black workers. The young preacher’s racial justice work ingratiated him to the people of Harlem. 

With the support of his community and of New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Powell was elected to the New York City Council in 1941, when he was just 33 years old. He also ventured into journalism that year, editing and publishing a weekly newspaper called The People’s Voice, which allowed him to argue against policies such as racial segregation in the military. 

In 1942, Powell received the opportunity to participate in politics on a national stage when a new U.S. congressional district that included much of Harlem was formed. He made civil rights issues, such as fair employment, voting rights, and opposition to lynching, the hallmarks of his campaign. In 1945, Powell was elected to Congress, becoming New York’s first black representative. That same year he divorced his first wife, Isabel Washington, and married his second, actress and jazz artist Hazel Scott. The two would go on to have son Adam Clayton Powell III. 

When Powell won a seat in Congress, there was just one other African American in the House of Representatives, William Dawson of Illinois. For a decade, they remained the country’s only two black congressman.

Almost immediately after he took office, Powell introduced bills to expand civil rights to all Americans, fight segregation, ban lynching, and outlaw the poll tax that prevented many black voters from taking part in elections. His social justice efforts angered segregationists in Congress, and one—West Virginia Democrat Cleveland Bailey—even punched Powell in a fit of rage. The two men later resolved their differences.

Powell also challenged segregation in the House of Representatives in particular, inviting both his staff and black constituents to the whites-only House Restaurant and integrating the press galleries in Congress. And when the Daughters of the American Revolution prohibited his second wife from performing in Constitution Hall because of her skin color, Powell fought the decision. He’d hoped First Lady Bess Truman would intervene, but she did not, leading to a dispute between the Powells and the Trumans that grew so tense that President Harry Truman banned the congressman from the White House.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Rep. Adam Clayton Powell demonstrating. Walter Sanders / Getty Images

Mired in Controversy

In the 1950s, Powell’s mission became global, with the lawmaker advocating for Africans and Asians fighting to liberate themselves from European colonial rule. He traveled abroad for this purpose and made speeches in Congress to get his fellow lawmakers to lend their support to the colonized rather than colonial forces. But Powell’s detractors took issue with his many federally-funded trips abroad, especially because these visits often resulted in him missing votes. The decade also proved challenging for Powell because in 1958 a federal grand jury indicted him for tax evasion, but a hung jury saw him escape conviction.

During this challenging period of his professional life, Powell managed to enjoy some career successes as well. He became chair of the Committee on Education and Labor, serving in the role for three terms. Under his leadership, the committee passed dozens of measures to boost funding for the minimum wage, education, vocational training, public libraries, and other entities. The legislation the committee presented to Congress went on to influence the social policies of both the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations. 

Still, Powell continued to draw criticism for his frequent travels, which his detractors used to paint him as an unsuitable committee chair. During this time, Powell’s marriage to Hazel Scott fell apart, and in 1960, he married a divorced hotel worker from San Juan, Puerto Rico, named Yvette Diago Flores with whom he’d have his last child, Adam Clayton Powell IV. The marriage also caused trouble for his congressional career, as Powell put his wife on his payroll despite the fact that she, mostly based in Puerto Rico, performed no actual work for him. The couple later divorced.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Washington, DC, in 1967.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is flanked by reporters, supporters, and onlookers after being accused of misusing government funds, 1967.. Robert Abbott Sengstacke /Getty Images

Powell also faced a backlash for not paying a 1963 slander judgment to a woman he had characterized as a “bag woman” for gamblers and crooked cops. The case continued for years, making it difficult for either his supporters or foes to forget. Due to Powell’s legal problems and concerns about his work performance, the House Democratic Caucus forced him to give up his committee chairmanship in 1967. The House Judiciary Committee also investigated him and argued that Powell should be fined for misusing government funds and be stripped of his seniority as a congressman. The full House refused to seat him during the investigation, but the congressman won a special election that took place in his district in the wake of the probe against him. Despite this, the House barred him from the 90th Congress, a move the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional since voters had backed him during the special election. Powell’s career, unfortunately, did not recover from the scandals that constantly landed him in the headlines. By a narrow majority, his constituents voted for his opponent Charles Rangel over him in the 1970 Democratic primary. 

Death and Legacy

After losing his reelection bid, Powell’s health worsened dramatically. He’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer the previous year. He retired as head of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1971 and spent most of his final days in the Bahamas. He died April 4, 1972, in Miami at the age of 63. 

Today, buildings and streets bear his name, including the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. boulevard in Harlem. Schools have also been named after him, including PS 153 in New York City and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Paideia Academy in Chicago. In 2002, the film “Keep the Faith, Baby,” a phrase Powell often repeated during his legal troubles and controversies, premiered on Showtime.

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