Blacks in Congress and Big-City Politics from Four Perspectives, Writers Tell of African-Americans' Struggles to Gain and Keep a Place in the American Power Structure

Article excerpt

BEFORE the 1940s, African-Americans mumbled and grumbled about the way they were treated in the United States. They asked for first-class citizenship, but with more timidity than bravado.

Then in 1942, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. thundered onto the scene, first as a street-smart pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist church, later as the first African-American elected to the New York City Council. Before he could complete a full term on the council, he was elected to Congress in a newly created district that made him New York's first black congressman.

Thus the saga for King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., by Wil Haygood (Houghton Mifflin, 476 pp., $24.95), began. Six-feet, 4-inches tall, somewhat thin, so fair skinned that many people mistook him for white, Powell was an imposing figure in a group.

The grandson of slaves, at the age of 29 Powell inherited the pastorate of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City from his father, who was a strong moral influence. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. had nurtured a church founded for and by Ethiopians, from a small congregation on 40th Street to a giant church in a new auditorium uptown in Harlem.

The father also cajoled, tempered, and prepared his son for the ministry. At Colgate University, Adam was a daring, undisciplined young man who passed for white before he was exposed and declared he would never try that again. He wrapped up his college career as an honor student.

This is the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. that Wil Haygood, a talented young journalist at the Boston Globe, tackles in a book that is sometimes as intriguing and unpredictable as its subject. And that may have been Haygood's plan: to present Powell's fantastic life in segments and bites, hopping from one interest to another without transition, without resolution.

In doing so, Haygood gives the reader Powell's moods, passions, and never-ending goals. He intersperses Powell's political activities with his love interests. He had three wives: Isabel Washington, an actress; Hazel Scott, a jazz and concert pianist; and Yvette Flores, a Puerto Rican woman. His final romantic involvement, Corrine Huff, was a beauty-contest winner.

Politically, Powell fought the system - Tammany Hall at home, Southern racists, and the seemingly all-powerful committee chairmen in the US House of Representatives. He soared through these struggles, including opposition from top civil rights leaders, throughout most of his career without losing his influence with his church.

Powell remained arrogant, swaggering, and confident until the end, when a persistent lawyer, taking the case of a woman Powell had referred to as a "bag woman," won the suit. This led Powell to become a fugitive - he could stay in New York only on Sundays - and he lost the Democratic primary after 21 years in Congress. Poor health also led to his final breath.

Haygood has woven a fascinating tale that often reads like fiction. "King of the Cats" provokes thought for Powell's debunkers as well as his admirers.

With the results of the recent 1992 presidential election counted and analyzed, the role of African-Americans in United States politics - at the national and local levels - remains a mystery to most voters. Black voters are commonly viewed as a monolithic group of people who are gung-ho Democrats, natural foes of the Republicans, and fair game for a third party that offers them what the two main political parties ignore.

Three writers, two blacks and one white liberal, shed some new light on the politics of the black community.

William L. Clay, a congressman from St. Louis, clarifies some of these mysteries by offering a national outlook for blacks in Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991 (Amistad Press, 412 pp., $24.95). The book has a foreword by the nation's lone black governor, L. …