Bipartisanship, Patriotism, and the Politics of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem
Harlem had spent close to two decades mired in an economic depression when the city burst into flames in March 1937. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was a tireless advocate for nonviolent community action as a form of protest against economic and racial injustice. The reason being, according to Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was that Harlem had become the world’s largest racial ghetto, and while the population had quadrupled, not one new hospital or school had been built. The area hospitals refused to serve African Americans; to make matters worse, the unemployment rate was on the rise. The black community was without leadership or organization. Powell Jr. started the Coordinating Committee for Employment; Reverend Powell opened up the group and included disciples of Garvey and Harrison. They followed him because in the pulpit, Powell preached to his congregation about self-respect. Left-wing radicals from the West Indies also placed themselves under Powell’s leadership because he had aided them in their fight to save the Scottsboro Boys (a group of nine young black men accused of raping two white women in Alabama; eight of them were convicted by all white juries and sentenced to death). After successful boycotts under the motto, “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work!,” Powell ran for and then served as City Councilman (as an Independent) and then won election as Congressman. Clayton Powell learned early on from his ministerial experience how to work with people of differing ideologies. Years later, Powell would defend Christianity against the arguments of Harlem’s own Malcolm X who claimed that Christianity was the white, blue eyed, blond man’s Jesus; Powell countered by pointing the Coptic cross in Abyssinian Baptist church, stating that Christianity was first recognized as a religion in Ethiopia.
Powell did not see himself as being limited only to represent the people of Harlem. Because there was only one other congressman of African descent besides himself, Powell viewed his purpose in Congress as representing the black people in the South who had no one to hear their concerns. He committed himself to fighting racial discrimination, defamation of all forms, as well as rolling back the tide against any and all forms of colonialism and imperialism. Washington, D.C. was still racially segregated and Powell was on a mission to make it more racially inclusive. Among other actions that he took, he brought with him as many African Americans as he could in the hopes that he could “bring down the prejudices within the Capitol itself.” Later on in his political career, Congressman Adam Powell Jr., during the Montgomery bus boycotts of 1956, called for and lead a National Day of Deliverance, in the hopes that the spiritual forces at work in the United States would change people’s minds about racial injustice.
The most significant convert on the issue of desegregation was Powell’s new political ally, President Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican), whom Powell (a Democrat) campaigned for out of disgust at Adlai Stephenson’s weak Civil Rights agenda and Eisenhower’s surprising record during his first term. During President Eisenhower’s second term, the first Civil Rights legislation since the days of Reconstruction was passed. In a sermon entitled, “Brotherhood and Freedom” based on 1st John 2:9-11, Powell first calls all Negro churches to take a leadership position in battling segregation and fight for economic rights as well; and then secondly, he says that all black leaders should be “armed with the Christian spirit” in order to join the frontlines of international relations and “to apply the imperative of the Christian spirit.” Powell demonstrated this new vision for Christian foreign missions by his unofficial participation in the Bandung Conference of 1955.
Powell saw the world changing as decolonization movements continued to grow stronger. When Powell arrived back in Washington, D.C., he suggested to President Eisenhower and the State Department that the United States no longer remain neutral on the question of colonialism. “With our Yankee courage, our Madison Avenue know-how, our religious heritage, and the bulwark of the Bill of Rights behind us, we can launch a drive for peace and for full equality now in Asia and Africa.” Powell was working to disprove the Hubert Harrisons of the world that the Negro church, as well as the Christian religion in general, could be used as a source for decolonization. Perhaps looking back, however, there seems to be a danger in having too much confidence in our system, especially if we look at critics of neocolonialism, where the world is arranged by international markets and monopolies. Perhaps it was Congressman Powell’s anti-imperialism and influence as friend of President Eisenhower in Ike’s farewell address as the 34th President warned us:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Powell, Adam Clayton. 1967. Keep the Faith, Baby! New York: Trident Press.
1971. Adam by Adam; the autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. New York: Dial Press.
( Powell 1971), 61-62.
 Ibid, 62.
 (Powell 1971), 64, 68,70.
 Ibid, 244.
 Ibid, 74.
 Ibid, 72.
 Ibid, 82.
 Ibid, 125.
 Ibid, 129-131.
 (Powell 1967), 237.
 Ibid, 117.