Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on November 29, 1908. He rose to prominence in the early 1930s and 1940s as a preacher, civil rights activist, and national politician. On November 1, 1937, Powell succeeded his father as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. During his early tenure as pastor, Powell substantially increased the size of the congregation through community outreach and inspired preaching.
In 1944, Powell was elected on the Democratic ticket to serve in the House of Representatives, representing Harlem’s 22nd Congressional district. When Powell took office in 1945, he became the first black Congressman from New York. Although Powell was only one of two African American Congressional Representatives, he successfully challenged de facto segregation on Capitol Hill. Black representatives were then prohibited from using Capitol dining areas, which were reserved only for the white Congressional leaders. However, Powell would bring Harlem residents to eat with him in these restaurants. Powell also confronted the racial bigotry of staunch segregationists like John E. Rankin of Mississippi on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Powell became Chairman of the prestigious and powerful Labor and Education Committee in 1961. During that decade, as a supporter of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society Program, Powell’s committee passed dozens of measures that authorized federal programs to improve education and training for the deaf, provide college student loans and public school lunches, and increase the minimum wage, thus expanding opportunities for all Americans, including African Americans.
On April 4, 1972, Powell died at the age of 63 of complications from prostate cancer at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered over the Caribbean around Bimini.
Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of An American Dilemma (New York: Athenaeum, 1991); Will Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
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