Commentary Magazine

“The Flamboyant Mr. Powell”

“Beware,” Adam Clayton Powell once wrote, “of Greeks bearing gifts, colored men looking for loans, and whites who understand the Negro.”1 He might well have excepted from this caution whites who “understand” Adam Powell, because most whites who think they understand him usually deplore him, and the more they deplore him the bigger the vote he amasses. Powell has been running against his real and imaginary white enemies for years and although he can now be re-elected to Congress without even the pretense of a campaign, he probably would like to have a few white critics on tap, just in case.

Besides, no one understands Powell better than Powell—his capacity for self-detachment is great, as is often the case with rogues and demagogues. When he first ran for the New York City Council in 1941, he described the “People’s Committee” that carried on his campaign as “about the finest bunch of honest thieves and corrupt Christians in captivity.” Five years later, when his son was born, he fondly described him as having a “big mouth, like his daddy.” When he was denounced in 1956 for having, though a Democrat, endorsed Dwight Eisenhower for President (allegedly in exchange for an administration promise to call off its investigation of the Congressman’s tax returns), Powell amiably denied that the White House had persuaded him to change his convictions: “I didn’t have any convictions to change.” A few years later, back in the good graces of the Democratic party, Powell referred to himself at a testimonial dinner given in his honor as “the flamboyant Mr. Powell.”

It is as much the humor, bordering on cynicism, with which he defends his inconsistencies as it is the inconsistencies themselves that outrage white liberals while captivating Negro voters. Powell is not simply a successful Negro demagogue; he is one who flaunts his methods and his achievements before the white world (often at press conferences at Sardi’s or “21”) and defies them to do anything about it. It is at such moments that his constituents love him the most. If he were simply a demagogue who used their votes to obtain power and money for himself, they might soon become disenchanted. But as a symbol of mocking defiance of the white bourgeoisie, he is apparently worth every penny of what it costs to keep him.

In this, of course, Powell follows a well-charted tradition in American politics. James Michael Curley flaunted Irish vices as well as virtues and outraged Yankees in Boston; the more the latter fumed, the higher the former rose. (Powell has never been re-elected, as was Curley, while serving a jail sentence, but no one has the slightest doubt that he could do it if the necessity should arise.) For decades, American ethnic groups have been producing two kinds of politicians: taciturn, supple, organizational leaders, and flamboyant, individualistic spellbinders. When you are on the outside, there are only two ways of getting in: beating the organization at its own game (by outwitting it and outvoting it) or challenging the organization to a new game (by outshouting or outcharming it). Only recently have some groups—the Irish, the Jews—arrived at a state where they could have the best of both worlds by sending their young men to Harvard or Yale, backing them with family fortunes and organizing skill, and launching them to win elections in ways that take advantage of, without relying exclusively on, their membership in an immigrant group. Only a few politicians in cities such as New York have been able to develop a genuine multi-group appeal.

It is hardly surprising that the Negroes have not. What is surprising is that liberals should be so outraged to learn that, in the meantime, they are supporting the kinds of candidates which their resources allow them to produce. Indeed, if Powell were an Italian or an Irishman, everyone would probably affect a sneaking admiration for his delightful rascality while continuing officially to deplore his methods. If Powell were a white man (and he may be, though he is not likely to admit it now), the editorial writers would be employing the rhetoric of Damon Runyon to describe what an “unforgettable character” he is as often as they use the rhetoric of the Ten Commandments to condemn him for his many (quite real) sins.

The truth is that people are upset by Powell because he is a Negro, believing implicitly that Negroes, in this day and age, ought to produce selfless, honest, and dedicated leaders who will advance (genteelly) the cause of civil rights and Negro betterment. Powell knows this and capitalizes on it, though he gives it a quite different meaning. When his tax returns were investigated, when a grand jury was considering indicting him for taking kickbacks on the salary of a nominal secretary, when he went on trial for tax fraud, when he was condemned for junketing about Europe in lavish style, when an attempt was made to “purge” him in the 1958 Democratic primary, when he was convicted of libel—in all these cases and more, Powell’s stock defense (and for his constituents, an effective one) was to charge that he was being “persecuted” because he was a Negro. That was never true in the sense in which he meant it. Anti-Negro feeling rarely, if ever, was at the source of his troubles; rather, it was pro Negro feeling: the feeling that Powell should be better simply because the Negro cause deserves better.

While Powell was under attack by Senator John J. Williams (Rep., Delaware) for his European excursion and his curious financial transactions, a reporter asked him if Negro leaders shouldn’t “lean over backwards” to avoid this sort of criticism. “I take the view,” replied the Congressman, “that equality is equality . . . and that I am a member of Congress as good as anyone else. As long as it’s within the law, it’s not wrong.” Later he added, “I do not do any more than any other member of the Congress, but by the Grace of God [sic!], I’ll not do less!”



The real tragedy of Powell, and of Harlem’s Negroes, is not that he should be a rogue (before the Great Society arrives and ennobles us all, there will be many more, black and white), but that he seems unable or unwilling to use the power that his style has produced for community or racial ends. Curley, by contrast, whose platform flair elevated him to high office, used those powers to run Boston—and in a not entirely discreditable way, either. The fact that Boston now has water while New York is parched is due, in no small part, to the Quabbin Reservoir system which Curley built decades ago.

But Curley was not lazy, and Powell apparently is. Politics is, for him, a platform, not a way of life. He can be charming and brilliant in casual conversation and thunderous on a soap box, but attending to the details of organization, giving favors or learning names, or simply listening, seem to bore him. When he ran successfully for District Leader in Harlem in 1959, J. Raymond Jones, his colleague at the time, said ruefully, “Adam doesn’t like to work. He is lazy, and he likes to lead the good life. . . . He is worried that he will be tied down in routine work.” His poor attendance record in Congress (before he became chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor) was symptomatic of his boredom—though in fact it was probably irrelevant to either his own future or the advancement of his race.

He has not used his power to wrest significant concessions from local government. He has played party politics with a vengeance, but rarely for any large purpose. Indeed, on the face of it he seems to have made one political miscalculation after another. He supported Eisenhower in 1956, but the Harlem voters supported Stevenson; he supported Arthur Leavitt for mayor in the 1961 primary, but the Harlem voters supported Robert Wagner. In the 1965 primary, however, the Negro voters of at least Powell’s own assembly district (the 79th) followed his lead in backing Abraham Beame for mayor. This was probably the first time that Powell was ever able to translate his charisma into votes for a city-wide candidate—though, like all politicians, he was able to do this only in the primary; in the general election, Powell could no more stem the Lindsay tide than the other Democratic party politicians could. In any case, until 1965, he seemed incapable of delivering on a threat or a commitment.

The fact is, of course, that he probably had no intention of delivering. He has had no real organization with which to deliver anything; to the extent that he needs campaign workers for himself (which is rare), they can be recruited ad hoc from the membership of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, of which he is pastor. Powell’s party irregularity was displayed for the advantage of Powell, not of Harlem; what benefits he may have received can only be a matter of conjecture, but there is plenty of speculation on that to be heard in any political clubhouse.

When Powell publicly demands something from City Hall, it is, typically, more patronage or less police harassment of Negro “bankers” in the numbers racket. It may be possible to give him some of the former (though patronage itself is in such short supply in the city that it could help only a handful of Negroes); but it is improbable that the Police Commissioner would promise him the latter. That Powell produces so little—that he is not likely to leave any monuments to himself, other than his church (and that he inherited from his father)—is in part due to the fact that his political base is a ghetto which cannot, unless led with great skill and cunning, provide a politician with ready-made power. J. Raymond Jones, the leader of what is left of Tammany Hall and a Negro of great political finesse, has come about as close as one could to translating Harlem votes into city-wide power. But he chose a very different route from Powell’s and he chose it because, unlike Powell, he enjoys and wants power rather than headlines, the soft life, glamorous women, and villas in Puerto Rico.

The ghetto made Powell and the ghetto confines him, politically if not personally. But when power is placed in his hands, ready for use, he shows considerable skill at using it. Even many of his critics must admit that he has been a shrewd chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor: he dominates it, directs it, and bargains with its power to get (among other things) what he feels are desirable changes in legislation concerning education, anti-poverty programs, job discrimination, and labor relations.



Powell prospers in chaos, when the organizationally-minded are distraught and at cross-purposes. The political chaos of Harlem in the 1930’s gave Powell an opportunity to enter politics at the top, as a non-partisan, using his church as a base and a platform. Powell cannot, of course, be wholly “explained” by pointing out, correctly, that he was a maverick who entered a political vacuum caused by the decay of the party structure of Harlem in particular and Manhattan in general. Equally important was his unique personality and his position in a large and well-known church. It is just possible that, had there been a well-organized party system, Powell would have found a way to become its candidate. But it is not likely (flamboyant preachers who were openly flirting with the Communist party were not exactly the sort of person Tammany Hall was keenest on recruiting); in any case, if he had become a party man, his ambition and intelligence would surely have led him to trim his style to conform more nearly to the dictates of party regularity.

In 1938, scarcely one year after Powell succeeded his father as minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, he and a group of Harlem radicals formed the Greater New York Co-ordinating Committee for Unemployment (a vice-presidential candidate of the Communist party was on the committee; so were Negro ministers, writers, socialites, and some of the old cadres of the then-defunct Universal Negro Improvement Association of Marcus Garvey). Immediately it launched a boycott campaign against white merchants in Harlem, especially along 125th Street. “Don’t buy where you can’t work” was their slogan, as it was the slogan of similar groups in many Northern cities. The tactics which, twenty-five years later, were to be revived by civil-rights organizations, were pioneered in Harlem, though with a good deal less attention to the virtues of non-violence. Concessions were wrung from Consolidated Edison, the Telephone Company, small merchants, and the New York World’s Fair. A bus boycott, aimed at getting Negroes hired as drivers and mechanics, was successful. Powell early displayed his mastery of the thinly-veiled threat: “Don’t be hard on any Negroes you see on the buses this week,” he suggested. “By next Monday if there are still people who have not seen the light yet, then convert them—one way or another.” Martin Luther King would not have approved.

With the beginning of World War II, the Coordinating Committee floundered; out of it, Powell created the “People’s Committee” for the purpose of getting him elected to the New York City Council. New York was governed by Fiorella LaGuardia (whom Powell detested—he once called for his impeachment) and reform was in fashion. The old Board of Aldermen, chosen by districts, had been abolished in 1937 and a new City Council, chosen at large by proportional representation, had been created. Under the old system, a shortsighted Tammany organization had drawn district lines and manipulated patronage to insure that no Negro would be elected; the new system, created to weaken further an already tottering Manhattan party organization, almost guaranteed that at least one Negro would be elected and in a way that would place a premium on personal publicity and freedom from party control. The expectations were fulfilled: Powell was elected in 1941 (the first Negro to serve on the Council); when he decided in 1943 to leave the Council and run for Congress, he referred to the Negro Communist, Benjamin Davis, as “my logical successor.”

In later years, when the bitter fight to repeal proportional representation was waged and finally won, Ben Davis became the issue. The Democrats and Republicans accused PR of putting Communists in government. This may have been tactically a good position, but it probably was not their real position. What the parties actually objected to was not so much that Communists could get elected as that the parties had lost control over which Democrats and Republicans could get elected. In short, they probably objected more to Adam Powell than to Ben Davis.

When he first sought office, Powell was endorsed by many of the good-government forces that had backed the new city charter, including the League of Women Voters, the CIO Trade Union Council, the United City Party, and others. Powell, like Curley, began as a “reformer.” By the time the parties got around to dealing seriously with Harlem, Powell was in command and could not be dislodged. And by the time the good-government forces realized what their assault on the party system had produced as an alternative, Powell was immune to their criticisms. In 1944, he was elected to Congress from the newly-created all-Negro 22nd Congressional District; in the primary he won the nomination of the Democratic, Republican, and American Labor parties.



Negroes broke into electoral politics in New York a full generation after they had entered politics in Chicago. A Negro was elected alderman in Chicago in 1915; a second was elected in 1918. In 1928, a Negro was sent to Congress from Chicago’s First District, and one has been there ever since. Chicago Negroes learned politics, first as members of William “Big Bill” Thompson’s Republican machine and then, after 1933, as members of Ed Kelly’s Democratic machine. Negroes have always constituted a larger fraction of Chicago’s population than they have of New York’s; in addition, the parties in Chicago drew the political map so that it consisted of a large number of small wards, whose boundaries remained sufficiently stable to permit Negroes to become a majority in several of them rather quickly. Furthermore, party leadership in the wards—vested in ward committeemen—was never divided in Chicago; in New York, by contrast, the parties regularly split the assembly districts into halves and even thirds in order to delay, as long as possible, the advent of new groups to power. A Negro became ward committeeman in 1920 in Chicago; a Negro did not become district leader in New York until 1935. Both the Republicans and Democrats in Chicago maintained strong Negro party leaders in the Negro wards; Tammany, by contrast, never really accepted the first Negro district leader, Herbert Bruce, and opposed him with rival candidates in 1935, 1937, 1939, 1943, and 1945, when it finally beat him. A short-sighted Tammany created the conditions that made a Powell possible; the reformers, through the new city charter, made him inevitable.

Powell wasted no time in confirming the worst fears of those who viewed his rise to power with misgivings. He attacked President Truman as “The Little Man in the White House” (Powell had wanted Henry Wallace to be Roosevelt’s vice-president in 1944). And when Mrs. Truman failed to heed a Powell demand that she not appear at a tea with leaders of the Daughters of the American Revolution (the DAR had refused to let Powell’s wife, the pianist Hazel Scott, play in Constitution Hall), Powell called her the “Last Lady” and compared her unfavorably with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had resigned from the DAR in 1939 in protest against Marian Anderson’s exclusion from the same auditorium. Throughout the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, Powell enraged serious liberals by his repeated attempts to attach the so-called “Powell Amendment” to various bills providing federal aid to schools and other community facilities. The amendment would have barred the use of federal funds in segregated institutions; the liberals favored it in principle but felt that, under the circumstances, pushing it would only jeopardize already precarious liberal legislation. (By 1964, of course, the Powell Amendment had, in effect, become the law of the land through Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Powell had little to do with that legislation.)

Powell was not the only maverick to serve Harlem in Congress. Vito Marcantonio was another Congressman who had defied the regular party machinery and won, in part on the strength of his considerable oratorical abilities, but the contrast between the two could not have been greater. Marcantonio used demagoguery to gain power which he then solidified by working intensively to build a vast network for dispensing social services and personal favors. Marcantonio loved power, and worked assiduously at creating it among the voters of East Harlem. Powell may have loved power, but he loved other things more—publicity, and the creature comforts. It would have been unthinkable, for example, for him to spend hot summer nights in a dingy Harlem office dealing with the myriad complaints of his constituents. To some extent, of course, Powell has used his church for that purpose, adding social and educational programs to its religious function. But Powell rarely participates personally in these programs; they have been run by hired professionals (sometimes with money he got from Washington) and church volunteers. For Powell, such an institution has been more a source of patronage with which he could take care of his lieutenants than a way of building up a network of reciprocal obligations among his voters.

The recent struggle between Powell and Kenneth Clark for control of the HARYOU anti-poverty program in Harlem illustrates the nature of Powell’s political instincts. There is no doubt that he wanted that program, and the many millions of federal dollars that would be spent on it, squarely under his control. To achieve this, he was willing to go to any lengths to discredit Dr. Clark, the architect of the program, and hence Clark’s choice for director, James Dumpson. He charged that Clark “would come out of this whole situation making a tremendous sum of money.” After much infighting, Powell carried the day. Clark resigned from the board and a Powell lieutenant, Livingston Wingate, was made director (he later stepped down amid charges of administrative mismanagement). Powell’s position as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, through which all aid-to-education and anti-poverty bills must pass, was too strong for Mayor Wagner or others to fight.

That Powell will use HARYOU-ACT (as the organization is now called) to provide appointments for his supporters is not in doubt. Indeed, this organization, with its extensive programs and its ties to dozens of other Harlem groups, may have given Powell the base he needs for institutionalizing his influence. HARYOU-ACT may have helped Powell’s candidate, Beame, beat Paul Screvane in North Harlem. (In heavily Negro Bedford-Stuyvesant, where there is neither Powell nor HARYOU-ACT, Screvane won.) But HARYOU-ACT is not a political machine in the traditional sense, nor is Powell a machine politician. The political function of HARYOU-ACT is to produce generalized community support for Powell’s leadership, not to exchange particular favors for individual votes. As such, it represents the new style in the politics of poverty, uniting a personal following and a welfare agency, charisma and bureaucracy.

Harlem Negroes are fully aware that Powell uses community programs for personal ends. The Amsterdam News has consistently criticized him; so did Earl Brown, long before he allowed himself to be talked into being the candidate in the disastrous Tammany effort to “purge” Powell in the 1958 primary. Civil-rights leaders—A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Lester Granger, Whitney Young, Martin Luther King—have all harbored, both publicly and privately, well-known misgivings about the Congressman. And a 1964 New York Times poll in Harlem found that King was the overwhelming choice of Negroes as the leader who has done the most for them (King got 73 per cent of the votes, Powell only 21 per cent). Incredibly, many whites persist in thinking that this dissension means that Powell is weak or vulnerable and can thus be attacked. The point is, though, that any attack on Powell from a white person eliminates the dissension immediately, even if the attack is based on actions of his which seem to demonstrate his lack of concern for the Negro masses.



Anti-Negro whites have delighted in the way Powell conforms so abundantly to their stereotypes of the Negro—as a devotee of conspicuous consumption, as sexually profligate, as untrustworthy. Pro-Negro whites on the other hand have not been able to understand why Negro political leaders could not be more responsible, more committed, more constructive. Between Powell and William Dawson of Chicago, whose style is that of the quiet party regular, they find little to choose. Dawson they reject because of his seeming indifference in race matters (he is, to some, an “Uncle Tom”); and Powell they reject because his interest in race is “irresponsible.” The assumption apparently has been that, during the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Negroes had the resources to produce something better. But that is far from clear. They lacked a large middle class; and they lacked in particular a commercial and entrepreneurial middle class which could provide the sort of civil infrastructure out of which might arise civic leaders, statesmen, and “good” politicians. And, above all, they had to win access to political power by taking it from whites not eager to surrender it. In these struggles, they perforce had to use the tools at hand, and these were primarily tools that the whites had fashioned.

Finally, a responsible agitation over race issues is not easily carried on within American electoral politics; in almost every case, changes have come—necessarily, it would seem—from institutions and forces outside the system: the courts, civil-rights organizations, and the changing temper of American public opinion. Partisan politics outside the South places a high premium on excluding fundamentally divisive issues from public debate; for most Negro politicians, as well as for most Northern white ones, the constraint operates effectively. When race is brought into politics by a man like Powell, it almost inevitably becomes distorted because the use of race as an issue is, in the first place, a reaction to a distorted political situation.

All this is changing. A new wave of reform is upon us, as evidenced by the sweeping reapportionment decisions, the renewed interest (in New York City, of all places!) in proportional representation, the reorganization of local government, the continued weakening of political parties, the rise to influence of new forces (especially the civil-rights groups), and the continued demand of the American public for “something better” by way of politics and politicians. And the Negro is changing—there is a larger and more affluent middle class, an increasingly restless lower class with a keener sense of relative deprivation, and a greater diversity of organizations and leaders. New kinds of Negro politicians will arise, but what kinds no one can predict. One thing seems clear: more Negro communities are becoming politically as volatile as Harlem in the 1930’s, and thus the new politicians will all have, to some degree, a bit of Adam in them.


1 All quotations from Powell are taken from the recent biography by Neil Hickey and Ed Edwin, Adam Clayton Powell and the Politics of Race, Fleet Publishing Corp., 308 pp., $6.50.

About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.