Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Is Excluded from Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1967, the U.S. House of Representative voted to exclude African American representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., for misuse of public funds. Two years later the U.S. Supreme Court held that the exclusion was unconstitutional in part because Congress had no authority to exclude an elected representative who met all qualifications for membership.

Summary of Event

The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a handsome and charismatic personality, succeeded his father as pastor of the large Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, in 1937. In this influential position, Powell, Jr., was an important civil rights leader during the Great Depression. As chairman of the New York Coordinating Committee for Employment, he organized mass meetings and boycotts to increase African Americans’ opportunities for jobs and housing. He was the first African American to serve on the New York City Council (he served two terms) and, in 1944, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first black congressperson from the state of New York. As one of only two African Americans in the U.S. Congress at the time (the other representative was William L. Dawson from Illinois), he ignored the informal segregationist practices at the Capitol and frequently clashed with conservative Democratic representatives from the South on civil rights issues. [kw]Powell, Jr., Is Excluded from Congress, Adam Clayton (Mar. 1, 1967) Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. Warren, Earl Congress, U.S.;Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.[Powell] Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. Warren, Earl Congress, U.S.;Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.[Powell] [g]United States;Mar. 1, 1967: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Is Excluded from Congress[01250] [c]Government;Mar. 1, 1967: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Is Excluded from Congress[01250] [c]Politics;Mar. 1, 1967: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Is Excluded from Congress[01250] [c]Racism;Mar. 1, 1967: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Is Excluded from Congress[01250] [c]Law and the courts;Mar. 1, 1967: Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Is Excluded from Congress[01250] McCormack, John W. Celler, Emanuel

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

(Library of Congress)

Powell was the first African American to rise to a position of high leadership in the U.S. Congress. In 1961, because of his seniority, he became chairman of the House’s powerful Education and Labor Committee. In this position, he was instrumental in the passage of much of the legislation passed in President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Recognized as one of the most skillful legislators in U.S. history, Powell used a combination of moral persuasion, threats, and deal making. He played a key role in steering more than fifty bills through Congress.

Throughout his controversial career, however, Powell was often accused of financial corruption. In 1958, he was indicted for tax invasion, although two years later he was acquitted of the charges. In 1963, after a jury found him guilty of slandering a woman in Harlem, he ignored the judgment, and arrest warrants for contempt of court were issued against him. He often exchanged travel tickets and used taxpayers’ money to make numerous trips to his personal retreat on the Bahamian island of Bimini. Newspapers reported that he had taken a tour of Europe with his twenty-one-year-old secretary, a former Miss Ohio. As he spent less and less time in Washington, D.C., his congressional colleagues grew to resent his record of absences. He kept a former wife on his office payroll, even though she lived in Latin America. In addition, his growing support for the radical Black Power movement of the 1960’s drew criticisms. Democrats began to view him as a liability. In the summer of 1966, House investigators concluded that he had misused his committee’s budget.

Later that year, despite much negative publicity in the press, Powell easily won reelection. Before the Ninetieth Congress met, however, House Democratic leaders met in caucus and voted to take away his seniority and chairmanship. In February, 1967, a Select Committee of the House, chaired by Emanuel Celler, concluded that Powell was guilty of serious improprieties, including the misappropriation of funds for personal use. The committee recommended that he should be censored, fined forty thousand dollars, and deprived of his seniority. His political opponents—mostly Republicans and southern Democrats—insisted that the committee’s recommendations were too lenient.

On March 1, when the full House debated the Celler committee’s recommendations, Powell’s critics introduced and passed an amendment to exclude him from the House and to declare his seat vacant. Speaker of the House John W. McCormack advised the House members that although the U.S. Constitution required a two-thirds vote to expel a member of Congress for misbehavior, the vote in this instance was simply to exclude Powell. Therefore, only a majority vote was needed. The House then voted 307-116 to approve the amended motion. In effect, the House had “rewritten” the qualifications for congressional membership by voting to exclude Powell, who had been duly elected and who met all qualifications for the job.

Despite his exclusion, Powell continued to be extremely popular in his district. Many African Americans and civil rights leaders, including King, Martin Luther, Jr. Martin Luther King, Jr., alleged that the House’s action was motivated by racial prejudice. In April, Powell won the special election to fill the vacancy left by his exclusion, but he did not attempt to take his seat. He then filed suit against the Speaker of the House in federal court. Powell’s lawyers argued that the only constitutional qualifications for congressional membership were citizenship, age, and residency, which Powell met. They further asserted that his exclusion unfairly deprived voters of their right to choose a representative. In the election of 1968, Powell again was reelected by a large majority. The next year, he was permitted to take his seat while his legal case was pending, but he was stripped of his seniority and chairmanship.

On June 16, 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S.;and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.[Powell] Supreme Court, which now had the Powell case, issued a 7-1 decision in Powell v. McCormack (1969)[Powell v. MacCormack (1969)] Powell v. McCormack, ruling that the exclusion violated the Constitution (Justice Abe Fortas did not vote on the case). Writing a complex opinion for the majority, Chief Justice Earl Warren agreed with Powell’s contention that Congress had no power to add to the three constitutional qualifications for membership. The House could exclude him only if it found he failed to meet the standing requirements for membership. Warren also concluded that the vote to exclude rather than expel could not be considered equivalent to a vote explicitly for expulsion. Warren added that it did not matter that the two-thirds requirement for expulsion had been met on the vote for exclusion. Warren also said that House rules specified that a member should not be expelled for actions taken during a previous congressional session. Refuting the government’s contention that the decision of exclusion was a “nonjusticiable political controversy,” or an issue outside the Court’s jurisdiction, Warren argued that the political controversy exemption applied only to congressional powers specifically delegated in the Constitution, and that the issues in this case were limited to interpretations of the Constitution.

Although Powell continued to represent his district, both his influence and popularity were greatly diminished. In the Democratic primary election of 1970, Charles Rangel barely defeated him by one hundred fifty votes. Powell tried but failed to prove voter fraud, and after failing to get on the ballot as an independent candidate, he resigned from his pulpit at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and moved to Bimini. In 1972, he became gravely ill from the reoccurrence of prostate cancer and was flown to Miami, Florida, for emergency surgery. Soon thereafter, on April 4, he died at the age of sixty-three.

Impact

African Americans and whites at the time of Powell’s exclusion from the House tended to disagree about the motivations for the action. African Americans commonly interpreted the House’s action as blatant racism. They argued that white politicians misused their budgets without facing disciplinary action, and many even charged that whites would try to destroy any African American who reached a position of power and influence. In contrast, most whites assumed that the exclusion was justified and that it had nothing to do with race. Nevertheless, the vote of exclusion only increased the public’s interest in Powell’s colorful life and career. He was the subject of the 2002 Showtime film Keep the Faith, Baby, starring Harry Lennix Lennix, Harry and Williams, Vanessa Vanessa Williams, a film that won numerous awards.

As a consequence of the House’s vote to exclude Powell, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Powell v. McCormack (1969)[Powell v. MacCormack (1969)] Powell v. McCormack placed significant limits on the longstanding rule that the courts should not intervene in political disputes. The opinion made it appear that the Court encouraged greater judicial intrusion into the internal processes of the other two branches of government. In subsequent decisions, however, the Court has been cautious about such interventions. Indeed, Justice Warren’s opinion did not directly answer the question of whether the Court would have reviewed the case if the House had formally voted to expel, instead of exclude, Powell for misconduct, although Justice William O. Douglas suggested in a footnote that the Court would consider such a vote to be a political dispute outside its authority. Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. Warren, Earl Congress, U.S.;Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.[Powell]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton, Charles. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. An excellent account presenting both the positive and negative aspects of Powell’s complex personality, with an emphasis on his contributions to the Civil Rights movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haskins, James. Adam Clayton Powell: Portrait of a Marching Black. New ed. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992. A relatively short biography that is sympathetic to Powell because of his contributions to the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haygood, Wil. King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. New ed. New York: Amistad, 2006. Although sometimes lacking in clarity, this remains a sufficient, well-illustrated biography of Powell. Contains many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jakoubek, Robert E. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. A brief account of Powell’s life in 124 pages, written primarily for younger readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powell, Adam Clayton. Adam by Adam: The Autobiography of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. New ed. New York: Kensington, 2002. In chapter sixteen of this entertaining memoir, Powell argues that his exclusion was a “get Adam” vendetta that was racially motivated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reeves, Andrée E. Congressional Committee Chairmen: Three Who Made an Evolution. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993. A comparative study of Powell and two other powerful chairs of the House Education and Labor Committees, covering the years from 1950 to 1984. Primarily for scholars.

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