Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was born in 1908 in Connecticut, the son of the pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. After serving as the pastor at the church for a time, he became the first black man to be elected to the New York City Council in 1941 and was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 1945. By this time Powell had already established himself as a voice in the civil rights movement, urging grassroots action to have businesses start hiring blacks. In Congress, Powell's efforts included antipoverty and minimum wage acts, but also focused on desegregation and anti-discrimination. He repeatedly introduced the "Powell Amendment," seeking to bar federal funding to any project supporting segregation. In 1960, he became the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
It was that same year that Powell's troubles began. In a televised interview, he accused Harlem widow Esther James of being a "bag woman," someone who collects police graft money. James sued for libel, and in 1963 a jury awarded her $211,500. Powell refused to pay the damages or appear in court, and began returning to his district only on Sundays so he could not be served by court officers. When he was cited for contempt of court in November 1966, the House began investigating the issue and allegations that Powell was misusing federal funds for travel, particularly to his vacation home in Bimini in the Bahamas.
In January of 1967, Powell was removed as chairman from the Education and Labor Committee pending the results of a special committee investigation. In his autobiography, Powell charges other members with hypocrisy over the travel issue, saying the head of the investigation, Democratic congressman Wayne Hays of Ohio, once "took a House dining-room waiter on a junket to Paris." The committee recommended that Powell be seated, but pay a $40,000 fine and be stripped of his chairmanship. The House rejected the recommendation 220-202, then voted 307-116 in March that Powell should not be seated in Congress.
Powell immediately sued to keep his seat. He remained popular in his district, and was re-elected by a nearly 7-to-1 margin over two opponents at a special election in April to fill his own vacancy. However, Powell did not show up to be sworn in, and spent much of the year in self-imposed exile in Bimini due to the contempt of court issue. Eventually, an agreement was worked out that removed the threat of jail over the contempt issue and a fundraising effort produced the funds for James' reward.
In 1968, Powell was re-elected by an 80.6 percent majority. Upon his return to Congress in 1969, he had to pay a $25,000 fine and step down as chairman. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-1 vote that the removal of Powell from his seat had been unconstitutional. The whole affair appears to have taken the wind out of Powell's sails, however; he was frequently absent from the House, and narrowly lost the 1970 Democratic primary to Charles B. Rangel, who still serves the district to this day.
Powell died two years later. A boulevard and state office building in Harlem are named in his honor.
Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Oxford African-American Studies Center, Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Powell Loses Defamation Case" in the New York Times on April 5 1963, "Powell Elected to House Again by Almost 7 to 1" in the New York Times on April 12 1967, The House: The History of the House of Representatives by Robert Vincent Remini, The American Congress by Julian E. Zelizer, Adam by Adam by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., digitaljournal.com