The Powell family relocated to New York City shortly after he was born. Powell’s father was a Baptist preacher who became the pastor over Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. After graduating from high school, Powell earned a bachelor’s degree in 1930 from Colgate University and retuned to Harlem where he served as the assistant pastor at his father’s church. During this time he also earned a master’s in religious education from Columbia University.
His father retired in 1937, and Powell assumed the role of head pastor of Abyssinian. He led a congregation of over 10,000 members, and used the church as a platform to promote his ideas on social change. This position allowed Powell to launch successful campaigns that created jobs for African-Americans in the city. By the 1940s, he had his sights set on entering the world of politics and he had the following to do so.
In 1941, Powell was elected to the New York City Council, making him the first African-American to serve in this role. The city council was only the start of his political career and in 1944, he began campaigning for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. This was another historic victory because Powell became the first African-American Congressman from New York State.
Powell became a popular yet criticized voice in Congress for his position on matters of social change amongst the public and within Congress. He proposed legislation to stop federal funds from being received by segregated institutions and some of the content was even incorporated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Powell was also a known supporter of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which he urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to support as well.
In 1961, Powell became the first African-American Chairman of the Labor and Education Committee. Under Powell’s direction the committee passed measures such as providing loans to college students and increasing the minimum wage to implement President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program. Despite years of criticism and request to change his behavior or speech, Powell remained the same which allowed him to further maintain favor with African-American constituents. However, by the end of the 1960s Powell was losing his influence in Congress and was even temporarily expelled from participation.
Powell lost the 1970 election to fellow politician, Charles Rangel, despite it being a close race. He soon resigned as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church and retired in the Bahamas. Adam Clayton Powell Jr died on April 4, 1972. His legacy has since been honored with the renaming of ‘Seventh Avenue” in Harlem to “Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard.” The Harlem State Office Building and two public schools have also been named after the late politician.