Tuesday, April 13, 2010

For Old Times Sake, It's Powell vs. Rangel For Harlem

I had a flashback in time when I read the news that Adam Clayton Powell IV was challenging incumbent Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) for the congressional seat in New York's Harlem.

When I was growing up in an all-white suburb of Laguna Beach,. Calif., the most visual and controversial member of Congress was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., IV's father. I would relish reading his exploits in the Los Angeles Times in the turbulent years preceding the Civil Rights movement.

It was Powell's "sassiness" challenging segregationist Southern Democrats that drew me to the realization that blacks were not receiving a fair shake in American society. I was in my formative years and outraged by social injustice of any kind. In my limited world, the only prejudice I witnessed was the one Jewish family living in a mansion and scores of Mexican families living in squalor among the canyons on the outskirts of my sacred beach community.

I refreshed my memory by scanning Powell's biography published by the Encyclopedia Of World Biographies. Except for a few details, it was exactly how I remembered the man -- flamboyant, devious, cunning, crooked and powerful as chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Despite his absenteeism,  Powell pushed through the most critical of all 48 major pieces of social legislation during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that included education, manpower training, minimum wages, juvenile delinquency, and the war on poverty.

As a freshman congressman in 1945, only one of two blacks in the 435-seat House, he was appalled at being barred from public facilities in the House dining rooms, steam baths, showers, and barber-shop. He instantly used those facilities; with political instinct, he got his staff to use them also. He engaged Southern segregationists in debate. He tried to bring about an end to segregation in the military, to get African American newsmen admitted to the Senate and House press galleries, to introduce legislation to outlaw Jim Crow in transport, and to inform Congress that the Daughters of the American Revolution were practicing discrimination.

As committee chairman, he instituted the "Powell Amendment" which stopped federal funds to any organization which practiced racial discrimination.

But the man had personal demons and unsavory practices that led to his expulsion from the House only to have the U.S. Supreme Court rule his expulsion unconstitutional. He served Harlem from 1945 to 1970 when he was unseated by a young Korean war hero, Charles Rangel.

Notes his biography:

As an African American politician and minister he was controversial; as a personality he was extravagant and irreverent. He liked the playboy image, the good life. His first wife was Isabel Washington, a Cotton Club dancer; he had to bully his father into consenting (1933). The marriage lasted ten years. "I fear I just outgrew her," he said. Wife number two was Hazel Scott, a singer and pianist; they had a good life together from 1945 to 1960, when he divorced her. His third wife was Yvette Marjorie Flores Diago, a member of an influential Puerto Rican family. His affairs were front-page news. 

He died in 1972.

Adam Clayton Powell IV is a chip off the old block only more discreet most of the time. The New York state assemblyman ran unsuccessfully against Rangel in the 1994 Democratic primary. “We must honor the past, but it’s time for change,” he said yesterday.

At a press conference yesterday, Powell made a few gaffes but claimed he ran against his family arch nemesis because of Rangel's own ethics problems and having been stripped of his chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

The younger Powell, 47, had had a few brushes with law enforcement, the latest his arrest on a drunken driving charge in 2008, a scene that was captured on police video. A jury acquitted him of drunken driving but found him guilty of a lesser charge, driving while ability impaired, which is akin to a speeding ticket.

The primary field remains unsettled: Vince Morgan, a banker who once worked for Rangel, said he would run, and two lawmakers, State Senator Bill Perkins and Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell, have said they are weighing candidacies.

Harlem, no longer a predominately black district,  has been represented in Congress the past 65 years by just two men, Powell's father and the equally resilient Rangel.

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