Using the Dilemma:
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. The Political Biography of an American Dilemma, by Charles V. Hamilton (Atheneum, Illustrated, 1991, x, 545 pages). Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 14, No. 4, 1992, pp. 27-29
To an unusually bright and already politically active law student mere weeks from completing her distinguished matriculation I happened to mention that I was reading a biography of Powell.
She had never heard of him, proving again that though little else may be eternal the generation divide is. For not so long ago, Adam Clayton Powell was, whatever he was doing, big news.
Powell is memorialized, however; perhaps not as well as he had hoped but not bad at all. A large New York State office building is named for him (the one on 125th Street, which Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had built, in response to one of the city’s recurring racial crises well in advance of anyone’s knowing what to put into it, a political decision Powell would, it is easy to suppose, have appreciated); Seventh Avenue in Harlem was renamed the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard; and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 could appropriately have been named for him.
Now he has this huge biography, by Charles Hamilton, one of our leading political scientists. Hamilton is a serious scholar and teacher within an academic discipline contemporarily dominated by people doing inconsequential opinion polling or commentary on candidates’ tactics; his interests probe much more deeply into our political institutions and processes.
Professor Hamilton’s subtitle must be taken literally. This is a political study exclusively. There is no more coverage than Hamilton can avoid on Powell’s often flashy personal life, little—almost nothing—on his 42 years in the pulpit of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, the first seven as his father’s assistant. What Hamilton is interested in, and calls upon his readers to ponder, is how Powell’s political career affords clearer understanding of Myrdal’s famed “American Dilemma,” that is the “blatant contradiction” between America’s ideals and its practices toward black people.
If Powell—affluent, politically powerful, often defiantly outrageous in his behavior—might seem an unlikely exemplar, Hamilton is at pains to show that he was not. Powell was, however, not a victim. He was a politician who knew how to use the “dilemma” as a weapon. He was, in short, master of the politics of moral unease. “He had the American Dilemma tiger by the tail, and be knew precisely how vulnerable the country was to the charge of hypocrisy and moral deceit.” He never allowed his personal violation of social codes to embarrass or deter his wielding of this advantage:
He had known and experienced the begrudging societal response to racial injustices over the years. He had seen the society ignore the issue for so long, and he had seen how Southern segregationists were coddled and catered to by many in his own party. They bolted the party time and again [as he once did], and were not punished. They scuttled civil rights bills in committee or on the Senate floor for years, and were treated gingerly. Powell saw all this, and he had an additional peek into white American society….
As a white-looking black man, a marginal person, he was able to experience two quite separate worlds. Being accepted for a time as white by unsuspecting white racists early in his life, he could see the folly of racism. He could see the privileges a mere white skin brought without any obvious basis of merit…. It is quite conceivable that this “privileged perspective” infuriated him and made him even more cynical in his own personal and political life…. In a sense, he likely concluded that if he had to accept America’s toleration of the Dilemma, America would have to tolerate him also. He was entitled.
Adam Clayton Powell was elected to the House of Representatives from the Harlem District in 1944. He served almost 30 years, until his defeat in 1970 by Charles Rangel (who still holds the seat). Through seniority, he became chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee in 1961, at the start of John Kennedy’s presidency, and from that post drove through much of the educational and social legislation of the early Kennedy
and Johnson years. In 1967, he was, after a steamy controversy, removed as chairman. That same year he was denied his seat in the House; a special election was held to choose his successor: he won it, by 86 percent of Harlem’s vote.
He declined to present himself to the House, in order not to diminish his lawsuit contesting the exclusion. Judicial proceeding moving behind the pace of events, the regular election of 1968 rolled around, and he won that, with 81 percent of the vote. This time, he took his seat. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that he had been unconstitutionally excluded. The next year, Harlem deserted him: “It was time to move on to other strategies with new leaders, away from Powell as the Issue,” says Hamilton. Two years later, he died.
The 1960s—up to his fall—were the years when, as an important Committee’s chair, Powell had his hands on real power; no black person in American history had risen so high in Congress, and none has since. But Powell’s more influential years were already behind him.
His time of genuine contribution was the 1950s. He had access to the Eisenhower Administration because he was willing to be used by it as apologist to and defender before the nation’s blacks (in 1954, Reader’s Digest at the White House’s request wrote a laudatory article for his byline, and published it in its October issue), and he used that access to be a sort of ombudsman for blacks countrywide who wrote complaints to him.
More important, he worked in tandem with Clarence Mitchell, the NAACP’s Washington representative. In those pre-civil rights days Mitchell, one of the true heroes of the civil rights movement, was untiring in his advocacy of such justice as could be wrung from the national government, and Powell was, as Hamilton describes, his willing accomplice and instrument, from his Congressional eminence. The NAACP “was the quarterback that threw the ball to Powell, who, to his credit, was more than happy to catch and run with it.”
It was from that partnership that the “Powell Amendments” sprung. 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. Ironically, even tragically, by 1964 when Congress enacted this principle into Title IV of that year’s great Act, Powell had become bypassed, in both the leadership of the black community and in the House.
Powell had another contribution to make during his 1940s and 1950s years in Congress, one Hamilton calls “spokesmanship.”
“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.”
One of the mighty forces that impelled the civil rights revolt was the “movement’s” occupancy of the moral high ground. The rightness of the cause was unassailable. The movement gave the nation hardly an excuse, had it wanted one and it always had before, to oppose it
Perhaps that high ground has lately been forsaken, though during the amoral 1980s that would have been hard to notice. Powell, however, never spoke from a personal moral advantage. He flaunted his desires, and their fulfillment “I wish to state very emphatically,” he said once when under attack for personal conduct (he had taken two young women at government expense with him on overseas travel) by Congress and the press, “that I will always do just what every other Congressman and committee chairman has done and is doing and will do.” In his claim and no doubt in his perception, be was the black who was like the whites, on a plane of equality with them, on the same moral low ground as they.
Charles Hamilton has written a book about a man whose career was for a while a large part of the whole story of black America’s political struggle. To tell the man’s story well would be an achievement, to relate it to the black community’s political development would be an even larger one. Hamilton does both.
He does something else, too. He wants all of us to look at Powell within the context of questions, not of who was he, but of who we are. Powell used the Dilemma—the contradiction between professed values and white America’s actual racial practices—to indict the nation for hypocrisy.
He refused to abide by what he considered a “double standard” of personal conduct, flaunted his relatively small thievery of public monies, and accused white America of hypocrisy when it objected: “I have not tarnished the name of the House through any violation of Federal laws, particularly the U.S. Civil Code governing conflicts of interest for Congressmen. Nor have I misused my position to obtain Federal contracts for corporations represented by me or by my law firm.”
It was—still is—easy to cast stones at Powell. The most serious of all his faults was that for too long, as Hamilton makes clear, he made his situation The Issue, when the nation and, in particular, black Americans urgently needed to confront larger problems. That is over. On the other hand, his indictments are still alive. Charles Hamilton has told us, by this good book, to take them seriously.
Leslie Dunbar, a former executive director of the Council and SRC Life Fellow, rallies book reviews for Southern Changes from his home in Durham, N.C.