KING of the Cats: The Story of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Fit for The Big Screen
by Dennis Day
Within the last year, Hollywood has released at least two major films with narratives rooted in the African American experience. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Lee Daniels’ The Butler. These were significant because they attracted much broader audiences than films depicting the Black experience usually do.
Will Haygood, whose Washington Post article about Eugene Allen was the inspiration for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, wrote a biography of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., King of the Cats, published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin, which could readily be adapted as a superb screen play. The book tells the story of the rise, fall, and redemption of the minister/congressman from Harlem and would seem a likely asset for an epic Hollywood production. While HBO produced a treatment of Powell’s story (Keep the Faith, Baby, 2002), which was viewed as a credible production within the budgetary limitations of cable television projects, Powell’s saga deserves larger cinematic treatment. To do his story justice would require the type of marquis actors and big movie budget that only large Hollywood conglomerates are capable of financing.
For longtime residents of Harlem, Powell’s tall shadow is inescapable. Thousands of tourists and children crane their necks near African Square in daily curious encounters with his statue, which towers over Harlem’s New York State Plaza. There, poised in bronze, he strides defiantly uphill, Bible in hand, facing a bustling 125th street. Thirty-seven years after his death from cancer, Powell stories still abound. His saga is spun in political clubs, jazz haunts, and the churches, mosques, and parks dotting Harlem’s broad avenues from Malcolm X Boulevard to Sugar Hill.
Oddly, this genteel maverick of a politician was only two generations removed from American chattel slavery; a grandson of Southern slaves, he became one of the most powerful and controversial lawmakers in modern American history.
Since the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr.’s installment in the 1920s as Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church’s senior pastor, the Powell family of Harlem has represented America’s Black aristocracy. As a child Adam Jr. had observed with amazement and pride the uncompromising dignity on the Black faces of Garveyites as they paraded proudly along Seventh Avenue in massive precision with the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) led by Marcus Garvey. As the young preacher’s son matured to adulthood, these powerful early images of Black self-determination would inform his political discourse, shaping his core beliefs on racial pride and the power of organized political protest.
The elder Powell emphasized the pursuit of higher education and academics as an antidote for the racism Blacks faced in America. Adam Jr. was sent to elite Colgate University in upstate New York, where his confident, polished manner and style, imparted by his erudite and prominent parents, could be further refined.
The Jazz Age had taken root in American culture and the suave and cosmopolitan Adam Powell Jr. naturally cultivated a flair for continental European style. He was dashing, debonair, and possessed of an elegant, easy joie de vivre. Well acquainted with the ways of old European culture, he could talk “jive” with the man on the street or engage in rigorous academic discourse on a range of subjects. All his life, Powell remained astutely aware of the power and utility of Negritude as positive ideological tool for liberating Black and White minds from notions of Black inferiority.
In Haygood’s account, Powell exorcised his personal demons regarding racial identity during his college years at Colgate, where he experimented with attempting to pass for White until he was “outed” by White students and by a fellow African American student who was as light complexioned as Powell, but who denounced Powell’s act as racial treason. His failed attempt at passing deeply distressed Powell who, after considerable soul searching, embraced an unshakable Black identity as political leverage for unmasking bigotry and racism until his death. In the process, he laid the template for “identity politics” to follow.
Powell went on to become an ordained minister and first African American elected to the New York City Council. Later he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving the 22nd congressional district, which included most of Harlem. During 12 terms in Congress, he forged powerful legislation that would be the catalyst to help change the very social fabric of American society, enacting minimum wage laws, the Fair Employment Practices Act, Head Start, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Secondary Education act that restricts schools and colleges receiving federal funds from discriminating, and so much more; legislation that lifted a generation of minorities from poverty into the middle class and paved the way for equality of opportunity and progress for all American citizens.
Powell spoke “truth to power” in ways that few can. He wielded his clout as Chair of the powerful Education and Labor Committee to advance the wellbeing of millions of impoverished, disenfranchised people; even challenging the sacred cash cow of Harlem’s illegal numbers runners’ policy game by threatening to unveil the rampant police corruption in New York City that allowed the numbers game to operate in Harlem with impunity.
Yet Powell’s irrepressible self-confidence unnerved many conservatives and Dixiecrats in the U.S House. Congress stigmatized him as an “uppity colored man” who needed to be put in his place. A Democrat, Powell broke ranks with his party, sending shockwaves through the political establishment when he threw his support to Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in his presidential bid, ultimately helping Republicans gain the plurality of Black support that made the margin of victory for Ike. He initially loathed John F. Kennedy for his chumminess with Southern Dixiecrats like Mississippi’s avowed segregationist John Stennis. He only grudgingly gave his support to Senator Kennedy after they appeared together in front of Harlem’s Theresa hotel, where Powell’s endorsement transformed Kennedy’s tepid appeal among Blacks into a national sea change of Black support.
As an ordained Baptist minister, Powell was not without his critics, yet despite his human frailties, he exhibited great integrity as a tireless advocate for the underdog and the oppressed. He was unlawfully stripped of his Congressional seat and hard-won seniority as Chairman of the powerful Education and Labor Committee, although Congress’s ruling was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Powell drew heavily upon Harlem’s vast reservoir of progressive political and social thought forged earlier by the likes of W.E. B. Dubois, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neal Hurston, Carter G. Woodson, Marcus Garvey, and his mentor and father Adam Clayton Powell Sr.’s theology of social justice. Powell experienced first-hand economic empowerment vis a vis the boycott – a tool he would go on to us as a means to affect social change. These political values and organizing principles would remain at the core of his and Harlem’s unique African American identity as America’s premier symbol of Black aspiration and hope.
Haygood suggests that at his core a conflicted Powell rejected the idea of being the Tragic Mulatto. He comprehended race as purely a social and political construct, rebuking any maligned stereotype. He was able to channel his considerable political skills and intellectual gifts to perceptively manipulate America’s irrational racial caste system to the benefit of disenfranchised minorities, the poor, and those locked out of America’s economic mainstream.
Yet Powell remained strangely aloof from mainstream Civil Rights organizations. He often used his pulpit and podium to mock the status quo, excoriate Eastern liberals and so-called “high-yellow Negroes,” and deride many Black leaders for being what he disparaged as ineffectual Uncle Toms. His vision was one of connecting the struggles of Black people globally. His world view was shaped early on by the Garvey UNIA movement and the evolution of the Pan-African Congress, which sought to end the subjugation of colonized people and urged them to assert their rights to their own destinies.
Tensions between Powell and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are widely known. Haygood cites a troubling report in which the Congressman threatens to disparage Dr. King and Bayard Rustin as a means of discrediting the impending 1963 March on Washington. Powell’s eloquent voice was notably absent during the march because of his aloofness and sharp criticism toward the Southern strategy of the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King.
After the senior Powell’s retirement as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1937 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. used the pulpit to work for social change and wielded considerable influence over an institution that was then the largest protestant church in the nation, with more than ten thousand members on its rolls. Armed with his deep sensitivity to the issues affecting oppressed people of color and bolstered by support of many of Abyssinian Baptist Church’s members, he was able to navigate both international and domestic terrains in American political discourse, rendering him a potent force.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the first Civil Rights leader to successfully use direct political action to expand Black employment. From 125th Street’s busy corridor through the many public and private sector firms and agencies which comprise New York City’s vast web of economic opportunities, Powell demanded, fought for, and eventually secured the Fair Employment Act. By the end of World War II he had almost single handedly created his machinery of political action from the quiet rage and smoldering impatience of an oppressed community whose aspirations he had heard eloquently expressed in the musings of poets, artists, musicians, and literati during Harlem’s storied Renaissance.
Powell developed a keen interest in drawing attention to the plight of poor Asians and Africans. In 1955, he attended the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, despite U.S. officials’ efforts to dissuade him. While observing the meeting of newly independent African and Asian nations, he was confronted by communist reporters about the appalling conditions faced by African Americans.
Acknowledging the existence of discrimination in the United States, Powell pointed to himself as an example of improved circumstances for minorities. Upon his return, he urged President Dwight. D. Eisenhower and other American policymakers to stand firm against colonialism and pay greater attention to the emerging Third World. It was Powell’s unflinching willingness to speak out on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized that elevated him in the eyes of many minorities and engendered contempt and loathing among his detractors. Powell became the clarion, unapologetic voice for African independence, boldly articulating his awareness of contributions of African civilization to Western development and of Africans’ glorious history in antiquity even in his speeches on the House floor celebrated the anniversaries of independence of Ghana, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. He thus seemed to revel in challenging White notions of Black inferiority in both subtle and direct ways.
He regaled himself in the “hip” Black enlightenment that came to symbolize Harlem as the Mecca of Black sophistication, creativity, literary prowess, and independent political thought. For Powell, Black people indeed possessed an honorable past and were capable of acting politically in their own self-interest in the present through exercising “Black Power” – a phrase he coined that was later appropriated by more militant Black activists as a rallying cry for community self-determination.
Adam, as he is still affectionately called, was Promethean; his charisma and appetite for living legendary. It is said that the Harlem preacher-turned-politician could “charm the spots off a leopard.” Often disarming, Powell became skilled at politically outfoxing even his most strident segregationist colleagues in the U.S. Congress to advance progressive social legislation.
Powell’s rise and fall from power is the stuff of which Greek tragedies are made. He embodied that strange “one-drop” paradox; possessing Caucasian physical features, which he could have used to enhance his privilege, he embodied nuances of both Black and White cultures.
In reading Haygood’s penetrating character study one senses, despite Powell’s blessings bestowed by privilege, his personal, human demons and racist backlash that would eventually lead to Powell’s political rise, fall, and vindication. Away from the glare of public notoriety Powell preferred the serenity of the Caribbean’s breezes and sea waves aboard his boat “Adam’s Fancy.” But Powell could never escape celebrity. His wedding at Abyssinian to popular jazz pianist and actor Hazel Scott could not have been better scripted by Hollywood itself. The tall, slender Powell exuded a veiled sexually seductive menace that women found appealing. As a world traveler, he was well read and navigated across continents with the ease of a bon vivant, charming powerful Eastern liberal elites and friends for whom he seemed to hold a special kind of adventurist appeal.
In each of his three short-lived marriages he is yet portrayed sympathetically as an incurable romantic, who somehow managed to maintain cordial friendships with his estranged wives. By all accounts he was known to be a doting parent to his two sons, Adam Powell III and Adam Powell IV. He enjoyed fast cars, frequent martinis, late nights in Harlem’s jazz clubs, night-caps at Sardis with friends like John D. Rockefeller, and glamorous women. He often preached, with rapturous passion, sermons of racial uplift intoning one America, yet he viewed many of his Black leader counterparts with common goals as either personal threats or mostly irrelevant to his ambitious political agenda.
The volume of landmark social legislation either sponsored or co-sponsored by Powell is impressive in the annals of congress. Throughout his 12 terms he compiled a record that arguably makes him one of the most productive law makers in the history of U.S.Congress. Yet Powell’s legacy remains mired in the public domain as inconsequential, not due to substance but to the widely publicized spectacle of his personal foibles, failed marriages, jet-setting flamboyant lifestyle, and infamous 1963 “bag lady incident.”
Despite his personal challenges and flaws, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was arguably at his core deeply moral in a macro sense. He was a courageous and outspoken leader who allowed neither Black privilege or White racism to dissuade him from pursuing an active legislative agenda on behalf of Civil and Human Rights and economic opportunity among the poor and Blacks.
What a shame that Powell today remains such an enigmatic figure. It is the very enigma and complexity of Powell the man that makes for cinematic narrative that reflects the nation’ schizoid racial, cultural, and political values of the Jim Crow era. A great screen play could delve into the psychological dimensions that seem to enable him to stride this American Dilemma of race-based privileges. Hollywood screenwriters, producers, and directors have repeatedly failed to grasp the epic dimensions of his life. Arguably, the preacher/Congressman from Harlem was one of the most powerful and charismatic agents of progressive legislation and ensuing social transformation to ever serve in the hallowed halls of Congress. Adam Clayton Powell’s real story is one for the ages, if truthfully told and brilliantly acted.