Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965

By Davis W. Houck; David E. Dixon | Go to book overview
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§32 Representative Adam Clayton Powell

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was born on November 29, 1908 in New Haven, Connecticut. At six, he moved with his family to Harlem, where his father pastored the most prestigious African American church in New York City, Abyssinian Baptist Church. Ordained as a Baptist minister, Powell also received degrees from Colgate in 1930, Columbia in 1932 and Shaw in 1935. In 1937 the younger Powell succeeded his father in the pulpit at Abyssinian. Not content to be merely a pastor, however, Powell was elected in 1941 to the New York City Council. Four years later, Powell entered national politics with his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. In so doing he became the first black congressman from the northeast. He would hold the seat representing New York’s 22nd district until defeated by a young Charles Rangel in 1970. Throughout his time in Washington, Powell was a loud and often singular voice on civil rights in the halls of Congress, leading desegregation battles in the public schools, the military and even in the nation’s capital. Even though ethics violations dogged him in later years, Powell remained a fearless advocate for civil rights. Powell married three times and is survived by two sons. He died on April 4, 1972.

In his brief remarks before marchers gathered before the Lincoln Memorial, Powell is not content with mere encomium. He uses the occasion to lambaste both political parties for their “studied contempt” of the Brown decision and to call for a “third” force in American politics. Instead of Republican and Democrat hypocrisy, Powell’s third force is non-partisan, led by Negro clergy, interdenominational, and engaged in direct mass action exemplified by Dr. King. Powell closes by proclaiming that if Eisenhower, Nixon, Johnson, and Rayburn won’t speak with them, “God still speaks.” And his speaking will lead to freedom.

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