Wednesday, Jan. 07, 2009

Adam Clayton Powell

Elected to Congress in 1945, Powell did not serve quietly. Combative and blunt, the New York City representative fought relentlessly for African-American rights. Over 11 terms, Powell helped pass a slew of major laws, including those that set the minimum wage and provided federal education assistance. Yet in March 1960, his outsized personality got the best of him when, on national television, he accused a 63-year old widow of collecting police bribes. She sued and won, yet Powell stubbornly refused to pay. He was found guilty of contempt in 1966, and the following year his colleagues voted to kick him out of the House.

After a special election, in which his constituents in Harlem overwhelmingly voted him back into office, the indignity continued as Powell was fined and stripped of his seniority and committee assignments (partially over accusations of misuse of funds). The hubub went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1969 that Congress' stripping of Powell's seat was unconstitutional. The congressman had little time to enjoy the victory, though. Already in failing health, Powell lost to Charles B. Rangel in the 1970 Democratic primary. He died two years later.