February 3, 1967
Some Lessons from the Case
of Adam Clayton Powell
In his book, Kennedy, Ted Sorenson reports that our late President once startled Mrs. Kennedy after reading her his favorite passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes ("For everything there is a season and a time ... a time to weep and a time to laugh... to mourn and to dance...") by adding his own irreverent corollary: "and a time to fish and a time to cut bait."
After a largely sleepless night two days before the opening of the 90th Congress I came to the painful conclusion that such a time had arrived for your congressman -- that someone had to act decisively and constructively in the case of Adam Clayton Powell, and that the someone was Morris K. Udall.
The result was a hectic and dramatic 48 hours for me. I should like to review these events for you.
NOT ONE PROBLEM, BUT TWO
The Powell case involved not one problem,
In my judgment the two problems required different
answers, and my soul-searching led me to take the following actions:
To the average newspaper reader my Monday
motion seemed drastically anti-Powell, Tuesday's very pro-Powell. It seemed
to me that both actions were based on right and justice and fair play.
While I didn't expect instant and universal acclaim, I was somewhat surprised
on Wednesday to observe these three strange results.
Hundreds of letters, pro and con, flowed into my office. As I write this report I am still receiving mail from all over the country on the Powell case. Yet, in retrospect, I believe I did the right thing on both occasions. And I believe there are lessons for all of us who want the Congress to be an effective, honorable body able to fill its role as the people's voice in a troubled era.
GREAT PROMISE - GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT
Mr. Powell and his defenders have charged that he was "lynched" because of personal dislike, his private life, and, most of all, his race. These factors may have motivated some - this is not for me to judge - but these things had nothing to do with my action.
The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, B.A., M.A., D.D., LL.D., minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church (one of the nation's largest congregations), is a most engaging and almost unforgettable person. I know him well. For three years he occupied an office - on his occasional visits to the Congress - just two doors from mine. He always treated me with courtesy and charm.
He is a study in contrasts: brilliant, but erratic; a self-styled "poor parish priest" but living like a member of the jet set; working hard for a few days to finalize a major bill, then flitting off to Europe or the Bahamas for weeks; a hep, magnetic leader for the Negroes, but rarely their warrior when their battles were fought. At a dramatic confrontation in the Caucus, I looked him in the eye and said: "You are a gifted man; I envy the intellect, eloquence, and personality you have been given. Indeed, I have always believed that had your gifts been used in other ways you would have been one of the great men of our time."
The Powell story is a tragedy, most of all because of what might have been. Adam Clayton Powell equals Martin Luther King in magnetism, in intellect. But King has something Powell has not: exemplary character and moral force. But more important, Powell had something King could never hope to have: cold political power beyond that ever held by a Negro. His lack of King's character threw this magnificent potential away.
I know little and care less about Adam Powell's
private life; few members of Congress are so pure that they would want
to cast the first stone. But I was and am concerned about his public life,
specifically his acts as congressman and as chairman of a major committee.
Here is some "chapter and verse":
These public acts and omissions are matters of record, most of them documented by a House subcommittee. However, this subcommittee's authority was limited to payroll and travel auditing; it had no power to study or recommend his qualifications for taking his seat, nor did it draw up specific charges for him to answer.
THE RACIAL BUGABOO
For years Mr. Powell successfully answered all criticisms with cries of "bigotry" and "racism". Predictably, these cries have been raised again. Indeed, on nationwide television, he attacked me as being, by implication, some kind of racist. On the other hand, the New YorkTimes referred to me as "a militant advocate of civil rights legislation."
I have attempted to live my life and construct my philosophy of life so that I could look straight at any person and speak my mind without worrying about possible racial or ethnic overtones. I believe I earned the right to do just that with Adam Clayton Powell.
My constituents know I have always been strongly and forthrightly in favor of civil rights. My last opponent cost me votes among real estate people and others by attacking my vote for open housing. I would gladly compare my own civil rights record with Mr. Powell's.
It's easy to talk a good civil rights game; it's harder to do the painstaking, grubby, day-by-day chores in Congress when a big bill is up. During the last two
Page 3civil rights fights, I had the 14-hour-a-day job of keeping civil rights forces on the House floor. Martin Luther King sent me a personal wire of appreciation and thanks after one of those 10-day battles. Adam Clayton Powell neither appeared to utter a word in debate nor walked through the teller vote line on a single amendment; this "champion of the Negro" did not even deign to leave his fishing boat to vote for passage of a historic bill to help emancipate his people after 100 years of subtle slavery.
Adam Clayton Powell isn't the only Negro in Congress. There are six others, including Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Rep. William Dawson of Chicago (chairman of the House Government Operations Committee), Rep. Bob Nix of Philadelphia (who is my competent chairman on a subcommittee), Rep. Charles Diggs of Detroit (who worked endless and effective hours on civil rights bills). If the Powell case was motivated by "racism," then it is hard to explain why these stalwart and upright men took their seats and chairmanships without question, and why they are treated with respect and affection by their colleagues.
THE CHAIRMANSHIP ISSUE
Each of the 435 House members casts his vote for the District he represents. But if one becomes chairman of a committee, he wears two hats. Powell's second hat was a mighty big one; the decisions he made and the actions he took - or didn't take - were those of a national officer. He was not chairman of education and labor merely for Harlem. He also was chairman for Tucson and Tombstone, Sioux Falls and Seattle, Boston and Birmingham.
The chairmanship is a powerful post bestowed by a house of Congress for the whole country. It is the business of the House itself; it involves no constitutional rights. As congressman from Harlem, Mr. Powell had but limited power. The abuses of power charged to him were almost exclusively things he did as chairman. The Congress, acting for the country, could - and I felt should - take away his power as chairman. Thus the denial of his chairmanship struck directly at the abuses and made sure they were halted here and now. In my judgment the action was clearly called for and long overdue.
THE SEATING ISSUE
Let me make it clear: Adam Clayton Powell is not my idea of an ideal congressman. Were he running in Arizona, I'd vote against him. I doubt that he could be elected in California, Illinois, or Connecticut --, or perhaps anywhere but Harlem.
Nevertheless the people in Harlem are entitled to the congressman they want and 74 per cent wanted Adam Clayton Powell. Knowing about his whims and his shortcomings, they elected him not once but 11 times.
The Constitution (Article I, Section 5) provides "each house shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members." Constitutional lawyers do not agree whether a house can - or should - go into such matters as "moral character," attendance, and the rest. For example, it might be said I could be excluded because I want to "destroy the Grand Canyon;" the Mississippi members for advocating defiance of Negroes' constitutional rights; members who oppose the Viet Nam war could be rejected for "aiding the enemy," etc. These examples are more or less ridiculous, but they pose the kind of problems which could be raised if a member is disqualified without a hearing. It was of more than passing interest to me that the last Representative-elect denied a seat on moral or personal grounds was Brigham Roberts, a Mormon polygamist, duly elected by the people of Utah, whom the Congress rejected in a burst of public indignation in 1899.
DUE PROCESS - EVEN FOR POWELL?
Should Congress, in judging the Powell seating, have gone beyond the basic constitutional qualifications of age, residency, and citizenship? I simply didn't have time before Congress opened to resolve this basic issue. But even if we could and should judge his moral fitness, there was another and more compelling reason why he should have been tentatively and conditionally seated. This reason is named "due process."
Sometimes how you do something is just as important as seeing that it is done. A man may have committed a brutal crime for which he should be punished. It makes a big difference whether the punishment is administered by a mob breaking down the jail, or by officers of the law after a fair trial.
"Due process" is a fundamental part of American
liberty with deep roots in our system. Volumes have been written on its
meaning. It boils down to this: due process says that a man's life, his
property - or his seat in Congress - cannot be taken away unless four steps
On January 10, Mr. Powell had not had a single one of these four rights. This is why I moved to permit him to take his seat pending an investigation in which due process would be followed.
It may be that the forthcoming "trial" for Mr. Powell will result in his exclusion - the same action the House took January 10, without a hearing. The end result thus may be the same; if so, the sacrifice of due process will have accomplished nothing.
My own thoughts on this issue were summed up as I closed the debate on January 10. I said: "I must have had 400 letters, complaining 'You have got to do something to punish Adam Powell.' But I have not had a single letter that says, 'You have got to punish Adam Powell's constituents' . . . if we do not let him be seated, as we have always done under the precedents of the House, we are going to punish not him but his constituents . . . . we will do great damage to the great American tradition of due process of law if we follow this course."
I think there are lessons for all of us in the Powell matter.
Unfortunately, there have always been dishonest and unscrupulous people in Congress. The renowned Daniel Webster openly asked the Bank of the United States for an additional "retainer" if he were to continue to press for its legislation in Congress. Such conduct today probably would bring instant disciplinary action. Standards of conduct have slowly improved over the decades. But we have a long way to go. Congress needs to improve and revitalize itself even further. I believe we must take permanent action to guarantee high standards of conduct and to guard against future Powell cases.
The Powell case impresses me with three lessons:
"FISH OR CUT BAIT"
on the House floor almost any working day you hear speeches decrying growth of the President's power at the expense of Congress. There is truth in these assertions. But in the judgment of this Member, the Congress itself is largely to blame. We Members - and the public - should insist that Congress modernize its procedures and internal controls. These issues - ethics, conflicts of interest, standards, and abuses of power - have been dramatized by the Powell case; but they are larger and more important than Adam Clayton Powell.
It is time, it seems to me, for Congress to "fish or cut bait."
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