The news that a son of the late Adam Clayton Powell Jr. will challenge Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel in the Democratic primary is the kind of sweet irony that reporters love. If the younger Powell were to oust Rangel, who has been under fire for ethical reasons lately, he would be replacing the man who beat his father for the same seat 40 years ago.
This falls into to the “you just can’t make this stuff up” category. The idea of the son avenging his father’s defeat wouldn’t make it out of the writer’s lounge of a second-rate WB series (is that redundant?). But there it is, in all the messiness that is politics, and Harlem politics at that.
I had the good fortune to cover Congressman Powell as a young New York reporter. First at a wire service and later at the then-liberal New York Post, a frequent Sunday assignment was to trek “uptown” to Abyssinian Baptist Church, Powell’s church, for some weekend entertainment. Powell, who had been found guilty of slander for calling a Harlem woman a collector of bribes for the NYPD, only showed up at his church on Sundays, when subpoenas could not be served to force him to pay her court-ordered damages. He would deliver a dramatic sermon, often with allusions, both subtle and direct, about New York politics, and then he would hold court in his office behind the altar, surrounded by reporters anxious to collect the pithy quotes that Powell fired off like bullets from a runaway machine gun.
Powell was often compared to a ’40s matinee idol in news stories. That meant he was light enough to pass for white, slicked his hair straight back, had a thin mustache and was a very handsome man. He spoke in the high-handed, confident tone of those ’40s movie stars, too. He’d wave off charges, laugh loudly at his own jokes with the reporters and sip a whisky at the big cluttered desk deep inside the church that was his political base.
Abyssinian was founded in 1808 at the southern end of Manhattan by Ethiopian merchants and African-Americans fed up with segregated church services. It slowly moved uptown as the epicenter of black life in New York migrated from the Wall Street area to Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem. Powell inherited the pastorship of the church from his father in 1937, and as a City Councilman he led massive demonstrations to pressure Harlem Hospital to hire black doctors, to force stores on Harlem’s 125th street to hire black clerks and the city’s transit system to take on black drivers and conductors. He won these battles and was propelled to Congress in 1944 by his success, making him one of only two African-Americans in the House.
When I met him in 1970, much of the fire had gone out. He spent most of his time at his retreat on the Bahamian island of Bimini, flitting in and out of New York to preach and missing votes in Washington, where the Supreme Court had given him back his House seat after his colleagues ousted him for misusing committee funds. Yet, until his troubles, Powell had been a powerful force in Washington. As chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, he pushed through hundreds of bills that were essential elements of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Programs. He forced school desegregation with a rider on many bills that barred discrimination in the use of federal funds. He pushed through minimum wage laws, equal pay for women, laws against lynching and forced the House to bar the use of the N word in debate.