The Racial Identity of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: A Case Study in Racial Ambivalence and Redefinition

By Rushing, Lawrence | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2010 | Go to article overview

The Racial Identity of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: A Case Study in Racial Ambivalence and Redefinition


Rushing, Lawrence, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Adam Clayton Powell Jr., one of America's most militant 20th century black leaders, was also one of its most paradoxical. This son of Harlem, who called himself a "marching black" and the "first bad nigger" in Congress was to all appearances a white man. (1) His fair complexion, hazel eyes, aquiline nose, and straight hair belied his black identity. (2) In a nation consumed by racial distinctions, Powell's apparent racial ambiguity influenced his life in significant ways. As a young man, it caused him to pass for white and later to create a false racial ancestry that would legitimize his black identity. Ultimately, it made him even more militant as a black leader and enabled him to redefine what it meant to be black.

Powell developed his reputation for aggressive, outspoken leadership as a young man in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s. He led protests that secured thousands of jobs for African Americans in New York City. In 1941, he became the first African American elected to the New York City Council. Four years later, he was the first African American to enter the United States Congress from New York City. Until the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950's and the appearance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the national stage, Powell kept the African American struggle for equal rights alive. (3) In the 1960's Powell reached the pinnacle of his political influence as chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Although his legislative power was eclipsed when he was stripped of his chairmanship and excluded from membership in the 90th Congress in 1967,--a matter which is dealt with elsewhere--he retained his influence among African Americans. It is significant that during his legal battles, civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young came to his defense. (4)

In the African American civil rights struggle, Powell was supremely self-confident, at times even arrogant. He acquired a national reputation as a fearless fighter who would not tolerate racial bigotry directed at him personally or at his people. He never hesitated to speak his mind, whether it was in denouncing New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as a fascist or in attacking Mississippi's Congressman Theodore Bilbo as a racist. Nevertheless, when Powell's own racial identity was at issue, he could be insecure and uncertain. Throughout his life, he was defensive about his fair skin and self-conscious about his race. As Chuck Stone, his press representative said, Powell "was always sensitive about a white skin that housed a black militancy." (5)

There were good reasons for his sensitivity. Despite Powell's widespread acceptance in the black community, there were blacks and whites who viewed him suspiciously. Once at a City Hall hearing, a black man accused Powell of fraudulently calling himself a Negro. (6) Journalist, Roi Ottley, Powell's childhood friend, said, that his fair complexion resulted in "Negroes who complain that he is a stranger in our midst." (7) Writer, Frank Hercules, who admired Powell, confessed that he considered Powell to be essentially a white man calling himself black. He was "black merely by courtesy," Hercules asserted. (8) But it was a white journalist, Richard Levine, who in analyzing Powell's ancestry, concluded that "his blackness [was] more a matter of choice than identity. (9) Such attitudes made skin color a central dilemma of Powell's life, but one that ultimately strengthened him and enabled him to better understand the meaning of race in America.

The origin of Powell's insecurity can be traced to a childhood that did not emphasize race. He was born in 1908, the same year his father left New Haven's Immanuel Baptist Church to pastor the Abyssinian Baptist Church, founded a century earlier. (10) Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. was a self-made man, born into a desperately poor family in Virginia in 1865. He worked his way through Weyland Seminary, a Baptist institution in Washington, D. …

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