Harlem's beloved rogue, mourned for what he might have been

April 18, 1993|By Neely Tucker | Neely Tucker,Knight-Ridder News Service

KING OF THE CATS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ADAM CLAYTO POWELL JR.

Wil Haygood.

Houghton Mifflin.

476 pages. $24.95. Early on in this irresistible biography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the flamboyant congressman from Harlem for a quarter-century, an associate remembers: "If Adam only had character, he would have been a great man."

The sentiment rings over the rest of the narrative, and one can't help but wonder: Had Powell the convictions of his religious beliefs, what more might he have achieved?

Powell was one of the rare civil rights advocates to escape the violence of the 1960s. He might have done things in Congress, of which Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X only dreamed. But his own lavish tastes undid him. Even Congress, a body not known for moral backbone, bounced him off the Hill in 1966.

The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated him, but the damage was done. Though presidents courted Powell's favor in the 1950s and early 1960s, though he helped pass the Minimum Wage Act, was critical to enforcing desegregation laws and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he became a lonely man who watched television alone in his small apartment above a Harlem funeral home. He died of cancer in 1972 and is today remembered only at the edges of history.

He was born in 1908 into a wealthy Harlem family; his father was the pastor of the 10,000-member Abyssinian Baptist Church. As a youth, his blond hair and an extremely light complexion allowed him to pass for white. By his senior year at Colgate, when his hair had darkened, he "chose" to be black and became a dedicated activist.

After college, while working as a pastoral assistant, he was appalled by the high food prices and poor living conditions of his congregation. He complained to New York Mayor John O'Brien about Harlem Hospital, which served 200,000 residents with only 250 beds.

O'Brien told him, "Go on back to Harlem, boy, and don't fan the flames."

Powell, then 25, was furious. He returned to City Hall a month later with 1,500 protesters. Powell demanded the resignation of the Tammany Hall-supported hospital commissioner. It was unheard of -- a young pup taking on Tammany.

But because it was an election year and because so many black voters listened to Powell, the political machine of Tammany had to capitulate. The commissioner resigned.

Looking out over his congregation each Sunday, he saw people not ready to pray but to protest. He led marches against Harlem stores that wouldn't hire blacks. He was elected to City Council in 1942. In 1944, he became the first U.S. representative in the seat created to represent black Harlem -- a seat he would hold to 1966, and from 1968 to 1970.

Powell represented one of the poorest districts in the nation, yet he dressed in silk, drove a Jaguar and summered in Europe. When stumping for other politicians, he demanded cash payments for speeches. He was successfully sued for libel by a Harlem woman he accused of being a numbers runner. He married three times and always had highly visible mistresses. He was an outrageous opportunist, a shameless publicity hound and a stage-stealer.

Mr. Haygood, a wonderful writer, catches these contrasts. He is best when explaining why Powell's constituents elected him over and over, despite his personal conduct:

"The outside world could not understand. [Harlem residents] washed dishes, and they worked for $1.10 an hour. They . . . scrubbed floors. They worked in grocery stores. They prayed for life's little essentials, and for miracles. Some -- too many -- were without jobs. For a long time, as their congressman reminded those gathered inside the Hotel Commodore, their 'Negro' had been up. And when they were greeted by their congressman, saw him pass their way, saw him raise his arms, felt his hand upon their foreheads, they knew that the weather might not always be cold, that there indeed was a God."

The potential of such a man is frightening. Mr. Haygood explains, with spirit and lucidity, how that power affected its holder.

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