Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009

Angry Harlem Voice

By David Luhrssen
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When he arrived in Washington in 1945 as the Member of House of Representatives for Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell was denied service at most of the capital’s lunch counters and bars. He left office a quarter-century later under clouds of controversy after symbolizing the struggle for black power in American politics.

The Oscar-nominated documentary Adam Clayton Powell (out now on DVD) is a superb overview of a figure that has passed into relative obscurity since his death in 1972. Director Richard Kilberg skillfully weaves archival footage and original interviews into a compelling account of a gifted man on the right side of history undone by false pride. He bravely battled racism but surrendered to greed and self-importance. Although setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement, he was disdainful of “Martin Loser King” and eventually preferred his boat in the Caribbean to his seat on Capitol Hill.

Powell was born to the tiny aristocracy of African-American leadership near the turn of the last century, the son of the pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, the flagship of black Christianity in the U.S. The light-complexioned youth who passed for white at Colegate College became the voice of Harlem’s discontent when he came home from school, eventually inheriting his father’s pulpit and using it as a springboard into politics. As one commentator noted, there was no separation of the sacred and the political in African-American communities. Liberation began on Sunday and gradually fanned out into the working week.

Urbane, humorous and in love with nightclubs, chorus girls and Jaguars, Powell was an angry black man who lived on a large scale. His constituents loved the abuse he hurled against whites of all political persuasions and winked when he cut corners on his income tax. In his early years Powell delivered progress on civil rights through aggressively challenging segregation. Later he appeared more interested in grandstanding and showboating.

Powell's name resurfaced in the media recently during the controversy over Illinois Gov. Rod Blogojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate. Many Democratic senators threatened to refuse admission to Burris. As it turned out, the House of Representatives’ attempt to bar Powell from his seat in the late ‘60s was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Hopefully, Killberg’s documentary will make Powell more than a footnote in constitutional history.

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