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Art & History

Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York

November 29, 1908

On this date, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,  the first African American to represent New York in Congress, was born. Powell used his position as pastor of the Abyssinian Church and his strong record of community activism in Harlem to win election to a newly-created, majority-black congressional seat in New York City in 1944. When Congress convened on January 3, 1945, William Dawson of Illinois, the only other black Member, escorted Powell into the House Chamber; Powell and Dawson remained the only African-American Representatives from 1945 to 1955. Promising to “represent the Negro people first and after that all the other American people,” Representative Powell symbolized hope and pride for African Americans in his district and across the country. “Keep the faith, baby; spread it gently and walk together, children,” became a legendary slogan of the charismatic and flamboyant New York Representative. During his career, Powell adopted a confrontational approach toward racial discrimination as a tireless and outspoken advocate for civil rights. Soon after his arrival in Washington, Powell followed the lead of Oscar De Priest of Illinois—the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century—by challenging the informal regulations forbidding black Representatives from using Capitol facilities reserved for white Members. During his tenure as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee from the 87th through the 89th (1961–1967) Congresses, the panel approved more than 50 measures authorizing federal programs for increases in the minimum wage, education and training for the deaf, school lunches, vocational training, student loans, and aid for elementary and secondary schools and public libraries. Ultimately, a myriad of legal problems and unpredictable behavior undermined Powell’s influential but controversial political career.

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Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, http://clerk.house.gov/art_history/highlights.html?action=view&intID=204, (December 02, 2010).

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New York Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s, Keep the Faith, Baby! record indicated the popularity of the Congressman’s civil rights message, as well as his determination to publicize his views. Record album,1967, Collection of U.S. House of Representatives

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