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
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. …