When true greatness beckoned, Powell flinched

September 29, 1991|By Bruce Clayton

ADAM CLAYTON POWELL, JR.: THE POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY

OF AN AMERICAN DILEMMA.

Charles V. Hamilton.

Atheneum.

515 pages. $24.95. In the 1940s and through most of the Eisenhower years, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was "Mr. Civil Rights" to millions of Americans. To others, and not just redneck Southerners, Harlem's main man in Congress was a windbag, a playboy dipping his hand in the public till.

Tabloid photographers had no trouble finding the high-rolling Democrat and minister of the prestigious Abyssinian Baptist Church lolling on the shores in Bimini alongside scantily clad women -- "secretaries," Powell would say with a wink. But his constituents, proud that he stood toe to toe with racists in Congress, overwhelmingly re-elected him every two years from 1944 to 1970.

To judge from Charles V. Hamilton's big, judicious biography, both Powell's admirers and detractors were right. Starting in the 1930s, after taking over his father's church, Powell (1908-1972) hit the streets of Harlem demanding better housing, hospitals and jobs for his people. His voice was eloquent, his words defiant and courageous. He was good-looking, charming, cool and hip, blessed with brains and confidence and a powerful base in the largest black church in America. On his own turf he was unbeatable -- "Powell could have been elected if he ran on a laundry ticket," ran the refrain.

From the start, though, Powell's incorrigible independence, flamboyance and continued absenteeism weakened what little power he had in Congress. He completely misjudged Harry S Truman -- whom Mr. Hamilton applauds as "the first modern-day president to be associated with forceful advocacy of civil rights" -- and alienated white liberals by toadying up to Eisenhower. His threat of the "Powell Amendment" -- no federal funds for bills that condoned racial segregation -- gave him a measure of influence. But when his seniority brought him the chairmanship of a powerful committee in 1960, he squandered his power by failing to be on the job and by nepotism scandalous even by Washington standards.

When his financial cheatings were aired in 1967, Powell's colleagues refused to seat him. Powell fought back from the pulpit and the lecture circuit, charging racism -- even though younger African-American congressmen had voted to expel him

-- and boasting that he had always done "just what every other congressman has done." In 1970, Harlem tossed him aside in favor of Charles Rangel.

Mr. Hamilton, a professor of government at Columbia University and an authority on black America, wants to like Powell and valiantly argues that his life exemplifies the dilemma of black America. Doubtless it does, and everyone should remember what W. E. B. DuBois called the tortuous "two-ness" required of ** all African-Americans.

But shoe-horning a life into a theory is risky, particularly for someone as susceptible to the temptations of the flesh as Powell. His personal strengths and power base gave him an unequalled opportunity to lead the civil rights movement. He said some courageous things, but was seldom around when needed.

And, as Hamilton admits, Powell had a vicious, self-serving side. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others planned demonstrations in the 1960s, Powell threatened to expose the homosexuality of one of the era's valiant black leaders and to charge that King and the man were lovers. Powell knew this was nonsense, but so great was his vanity and desire to placate the Kennedy administration -- in the hope that the government would overlook his transgressions -- that he would stoop to character assassination.

F: Powell could have been a great man. Too bad he wasn't.

Mr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of American

History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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