Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Unisex T-Shirt
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Mr. Civil Rights: The Rise and Fall of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. – A Political Dilemma (1992)
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (November 29, 1908 – April 4, 1972) was an American Baptist pastor and politician who represented the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in the United States House of Representatives from 1945 until 1971. He was the first African-American to be elected to Congress from New York, as well as the first from any state in the Northeast. Re-elected for nearly three decades, Powell became a powerful national politician of the Democratic Party, and served as a national spokesman on civil rights and social issues. He also urged United States presidents to support emerging nations in Africa and Asia as they gained independence after colonialism.
In 1961, after 16 years in the House, Powell became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, the most powerful position held by an African American in Congress. As chairman, he supported the passage of important social and civil rights legislation under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Following allegations of corruption, in 1967 Powell was excluded from his seat by Democratic Representatives-elect of the 90th United States Congress, but he was re-elected and regained the seat in the 1969 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States in Powell v. McCormack. He lost his seat in 1970 to Charles Rangel and retired from electoral politics.
Adam Clayton Powell speaking at UCLA 1/10/1968
New York City Council
In 1941, with the aid of New York City’s use of the single transferable vote, Powell was elected to the New York City Council as the city’s first black Council member. He received 65,736 votes, the third-best total among the six successful Council candidates.
In 1944, Powell ran for the United States Congress on a platform of civil rights for African Americans: support for “fair employment practices, and a ban on poll taxes and lynching.” Requiring poll taxes for voter registration and voting was a device used by southern states in new constitutions adopted from 1890 to 1908 to disenfranchise most blacks and many poor whites, in order to exclude them from politics. Poll taxes in the United States, together with the social and economic intimidation of Jim Crow laws, were maintained in the South into the 1960s to keep blacks excluded from politics and politically powerless. Although often associated with states of the former Confederate States of America, poll taxes were also in place in some northern and western states, including California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin.
Powell was elected as a Democrat to represent the Congressional District that included Harlem. He was the first black Congressman elected from New York State.
As the historian Charles V. Hamilton wrote in his 1992 political biography of Powell,
Here was a person who [in the 1940s] would at least ‘speak out. ‘… That would be different … Many Negroes were angry that no Northern liberals would get up on the floor of Congress and challenge the segregationists. … Powell certainly promised to do that …
[In] the 1940s and 1950s, he was, indeed, virtually alone … And precisely because of that, he was exceptionally crucial. In many instances during those earlier times, if he did not speak out, the issue would not have been raised. … For example, only he could (or would dare to) challenge Congressman Rankin of Mississippi on the House floor in the 1940s for using the word “nigger”. He certainly did not change Rankin’s mind or behavior, but he gave solace to millions who longed for a little retaliatory defiance.
As one of only two black Congressmen (the other being William Levi Dawson) until 1955, Powell challenged the informal ban on black representatives using Capitol facilities previously reserved for white members. He took black constituents to dine with him in the “Whites Only” House restaurant. He clashed with the many segregationists from the South in his party.
Since the turn of the 20th century, Southern Democrats had commanded a one-party system, as they had effectively disenfranchised most blacks from voting since the turn of the century and excluded them from the political system through barriers to voter registration and voting. The white Congressmen and Senators controlled all the seats allocated for the total population in the southern states, had established seniority, and commanded many important committee chairs in the House and Senate.
Powell worked closely with Clarence Mitchell Jr., the representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Washington, D.C., to try to gain justice in federal programs. Biographer Hamilton described the NAACP as “the quarterback that threw the ball to Powell, who, to his credit, was more than happy to catch and run with it.” He developed a strategy known as the “Powell Amendments”. “On bill after bill that proposed federal expenditures, Powell would offer ‘our customary amendment’, requiring that federal funds be denied to any jurisdiction that maintained segregation; Liberals would be embarrassed, Southern politicians angered.” This principle would later become integrated into Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Powell was also willing to act independently; in 1956, he broke party ranks and supported President Dwight D. Eisenhower for re-election, saying the civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform was too weak. In 1958, he survived a determined effort by the Tammany Hall Democratic Party machine in New York to oust him in the primary election. In 1960, Powell, hearing of planned civil rights marches at the Democratic Convention, which could embarrass the party or candidate, threatened to accuse Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. of having a homosexual relationship with Bayard Rustin unless the marches were cancelled. Rustin, one of King’s political advisers, was an openly gay man. King agreed to cancel the planned events and Rustin resigned from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Powell also paid attention to the issues of developing nations in Africa and Asia, making trips overseas. He urged presidential policymakers to pay attention to nations seeking independence from colonial powers and support aid to them. During the Cold War, many of them sought neutrality between the United States and the Soviet Union. He made speeches on the House Floor to celebrate the anniversaries of the independence of nations such as Ghana, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone.
In 1955, against the State Department’s advice, Powell attended the Asian–African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, as an observer. He made a positive international impression in public addresses that balanced his concerns of his nation’s race relations problems with a spirited defense of the United States as a whole against Communist criticisms. Powell returned to the United States to a warm bipartisan reception for his performance, and he was invited to meet with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
With this influence, Powell suggested to the State Department that the current manner of competing with the Soviet Union in the realm of fine arts such as international symphony orchestra and ballet company tours was ineffective. Instead, he advised that the United States should focus on the popular arts, such as sponsoring international tours of famous jazz musicians, which could draw attention to an indigenous American art form and featured musicians who often performed in mixed race bands. The State Department approved the idea. The first such tour with Dizzy Gillespie proved to be an outstanding success abroad and prompted similarly popular tours featuring other musicians for years.
Committee chairmanship and legislation
In 1961, after 15 years in Congress, Powell advanced to chairman of the powerful United States House Committee on Education and Labor. In this position, he presided over federal social programs for minimum wage and Medicaid (established later under Johnson); he expanded the minimum wage to include retail workers; and worked for equal pay for women; he supported education and training for the deaf, nursing education, and vocational training; he led legislation for standards for wages and work hours; as well as for aid for elementary and secondary education, and school libraries. Powell’s committee proved extremely effective in enacting major parts of President Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and President Johnson’s “Great Society” social programs and the War on Poverty. It successfully reported to Congress “49 pieces of bedrock legislation”, as President Johnson put it in an May 18, 1966, letter congratulating Powell on the fifth anniversary of his chairmanship.
Powell was instrumental in passing legislation that made lynching a federal crime, as well as bills that desegregated public schools. He challenged the Southern practice of charging Blacks a poll tax to vote. Poll taxes for federal elections were prohibited by the 24th Amendment, passed in 1964. Voter registration and electoral practices were not changed substantially in most of the South until after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided federal oversight of voter registration and elections, and enforcement of the constitutional right to vote. In some areas where discrimination was severe, such as Mississippi, it took years for African Americans to register and vote in numbers related to their proportion in the population, but they have since maintained a high rate of registration and voting.
By the mid-1960s, Powell was increasingly being criticized for mismanaging his committee’s budget, taking trips abroad at public expense, and missing meetings of his committee. When under scrutiny by the press and other members of Congress for personal conduct—he had taken two young women at government expense with him on overseas travel—he responded:
I wish to state very emphatically… that I will always do just what every other Congressman and committee chairman has done and is doing and will do.”
Opponents led criticism in his District, where his refusal to pay a 1963 slander judgment made him subject to arrest; he also spent increasing amounts of time in Florida.
Select House Committee to investigate Representative Adam Clayton Powell
In January 1967, the House Democratic Caucus stripped Powell of his committee chairmanship. A series of hearings on Powell’s misconduct had been held by the 89th Congress in December 1966 that produced the evidence that the House Democratic Caucus cited in taking this action. A Select House Committee was established upon the House’s reconvening for the 90th Congress to further investigate Powell’s misconduct so as to determine if he should be allowed to take his seat. This committee was appointed by the Speaker of the House. Its chairman was Emanuel Celler of New York and its members were James C. Corman, Claude Pepper, John Conyers, Jr., Andrew Jacobs, Jr., Arch A. Moore, Jr., Charles M. Teague, Clark MacGregor, and Vernon W. Thompson. This committee’s inquiry centered on the following issues: “1. Mr. Powell’s age, citizenship, and inhabitancy [sic]; 2. The status of legal proceedings to which Mr. Powell was a party in the State of New York and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico with particular reference to the instances in which he has been held in contempt of court; and 3. Matters of Mr. Powell’s alleged official misconduct since January 3, 1961.”
Hearings of the Select House Committee to investigate Rep. Adam Clayton Powell were held over three days in February 1967. Powell was in attendance only on the first day of these hearings, February 8. Neither he nor his legal counsel requested that the select committee summon any witnesses. According to the official Congressional report on these committee hearings, Powell and his counsel’s official position was that “the Committee had no authority to consider the misconduct charges.”
The select committee found that Powell met residency requirements for Congressional representatives under the Constitution, but that Powell had asserted an unconstitutional immunity from earlier rulings against him in criminal cases tried in the New York State Supreme Court. The committee also found that Powell had committed numerous acts of financial misconduct. These included appropriation of Congressional funds for his own personal use, the use of funds meant for the House Education and Labor Committee to pay the salary of a housekeeper at his property on Bimini in The Bahamas, purchasing airline tickets for himself, family, and friends from the funds of the House Education and Labor Committee, as well as making false reports on expenditures of foreign currency while head of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The members of the Select Committee had different opinions on the fate of Powell’s seat. Most notably, Claude Pepper was strongly in favor of recommending that Powell not be seated at all, while John Conyers, Jr., the only African American Representative on the Select Committee felt that any punishment beyond severe censure was inappropriate. In fact, in the committee’s official report, Conyers asserted that Powell’s conduct during the two investigations of his conduct were not contrary to the dignity of the House of Representatives, as had been suggested by the investigation. Conyers also suggested that cases of misconduct brought before the House of Representatives never exceed censure. In the end, the Select House Committee to investigate Rep. Adam Clayton Powell recommended that Powell be seated but stripped of his seniority and forced to pay a fine of $40,000, citing article I, section 5, clause 2 of the Constitution, which gives each house of Congress the ability to punish members for improper conduct.
The full House refused to seat him until completion of the investigation. Powell urged his supporters to “keep the faith, baby,” while the investigation was under way. On March 1, the House voted 307 to 116 to exclude him, despite the recommendation of the Select Committee. Powell said, “On this day, the day of March in my opinion, is the end of the United States of America as the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Powell won the Special Election to fill the vacancy caused by his exclusion, receiving 86% of the vote. But he did not take his seat, as he was filing a separate suit. He sued in Powell v. McCormack to retain his seat. In November 1968, Powell was re-elected. On January 3, 1969, he was seated as a member of the 91st Congress, but he was fined $25,000 and denied seniority. In June 1969, in Powell v. McCormack, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded Powell, as he had been duly elected by his constituents.
Powell’s increasing absenteeism was noted by constituents, which contributed, in June 1970, to his defeat in the Democratic primary for reelection to his seat by Charles B. Rangel. Powell failed to garner enough signatures to get on the November ballot as an Independent, and Rangel won that (and following) general elections. In the fall of 1970, Powell moved to his retreat on Bimini in The Bahamas, also resigning as minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr – “A New Breed of Cats” (1968)
Adam Clayton Powell Clip
The Flamboyant Adam Clayton Powell Jr: “We’re Not Anti-White But We’re Pro-Black”
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