Harlem, New York has been and still is crucial to New York City politics. The area that was home to the majority of African-Americans has been affected by the wave of gentrification that has reached nearly every major city across the nation. Musicians, actors, gangsters and politicians have found fame and fortune in the neighborhood with a storied past. And of all of the colorful characters to use Harlem as their base of activity, perhaps none is as famous as the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) There is a street named in his honor in the area but sadly, the generation of today is largely unaware of his story and his contributions to American society. He has been described as flamboyant, stubborn, cunning and of great intelligence. He earned the affection of his congregation and millions of minorities and the wrath of presidents and senators determined to put an end to his career. Forty-five years have passed since his death on April 4, 1972. Cancer proved to be his biggest opponent, taking his life at the age of sixty-three. But who was the real Adam Clayton Powell, Jr? And why is he so important to the Civil Rights Movement and the African-American experience? Wil Haygood has researched Powell’s life and compiled this definitive account of the late congressman’s life.
Powell’s life was anything but ordinary and Haygood brings the past alive as we become more acquainted with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as we follow him through life as he attends Colgate University, succeeds his father as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and takes the plunge into politics. Legendary figures of the past make an appearance throughout the book, some of whom are still alive today. Some loved him and some hated him, but all can agree that there was no other like him. The Powell amendment, which mandated the withholding of funds to cities that refused to follow federal law mandating desegregation was a landmark piece of legislation and remains his crowning achievement. But for all of his highlights, there was also another side to the famed politician. And Haygood, as a biographer, does not avoid the darker parts of his life.
Several marriages, a playboy like lifestyle and a larger than life character are just some of the many dimensions that composed Powell. The revelations in the book are not easy to accept but they reinforce the notion that in life we do have to take the negative with the positive. And flawed as he was, he lived his life on his own terms and without compromise. Today, many would not blink an eye to the escapades of Powell but in his era, far more conservative than today, Powell was pushing the boundaries of acceptability at every turn. And for millions of young men and women of color, he became a source of pride and inspiration. His power allowed him to move through political circles but also earned him the wrath of powerful enemies who would come together as the cast of villains in the hearings that resulted in Powell losing his congressional seat which he eventually obtained again following a successful litigation campaign.
Life for Powell was fast and full of highs and lows. In hindsight, we can see the habits and decisions that led to his early death. And in death, he is remembered as one of Harlem’s greats. Powell’s is long gone but through this book, his memory to continues. The children of Harlem and across the nation today have no connection to Powell, but if he were alive, he would be fighting right now in their best interest. And for New York City residents, we should remember his life every time we drive down Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. This is his life, the story of a New York City legend whose legacy shall never fade. Haygood’s book is a welcomed addition to any library.