March 31, 1941 – A Bus Boycott Before Its Time Begins in New York City

On this day in history, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who presided over Harlem’s most important church, Abyssinian Baptist, led a boycott against two private Manhattan bus lines that refused to hire blacks for any job besides porter, and there were only fourteen of those, out of over 3200 workers.

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Powell’s Greater New York Coordinating Committee for Employment joined with other Harlem groups calling for a boycott of the two bus lines. The boycott didn’t get much support from the black community, nor did it get much media coverage, but it was successful: after one month, the two bus lines signed an agreement with Powell’s group to hire one hundred black drivers and seventy maintenance workers. The agreement also called for a continued affirmative action hiring policy until seventeen percent of the companies’ workforce was black.

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Powell also led a fight to have drugstores operating in Harlem hire black pharmacists, and encouraged residents to shop where blacks were hired to work.

In the fall of 1941, Powell became the first African American elected to the New York City Council. Four years later, he was elected as a Democrat to represent the Congressional District that included Harlem in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the first black Congressman from New York State and the first in the Post-Reconstruction Era from any Northern state other than Illinois.

Powell continued to be a rabble-rouser in Congress. As one of only two black Congressmen until 1955 (the other being William Levi Dawson), he challenged the informal ban on black representatives using Capitol facilities reserved for white members and took black constituents to dine with him in the “Whites Only” House restaurant.

In 1961 Powell reached the pinnacle of his political influence, becoming chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. In this position, he pushed federal social programs for an increased minimum wage and for Medicaid; equal pay for women; and education and training programs for the deaf, inter alia. Powell’s committee helped enact major parts of President Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and President Johnson’s “Great Society” social programs and the War on Poverty.

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 in the Oval Office

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 in the Oval Office

However, By the mid-1960s, Powell was increasingly being criticized for mismanaging his committee’s budget, taking trips abroad at public expense, and missing committee meetings. He was also involved in scandals in his personal life.

Although Powell was re-elected in the 1966 election, in January 1967 Speaker of the House John William McCormack asked him to abstain from taking the oath of office. The House adopted H.Res. 1, which stripped Powell of his House Committee chairmanship, excluded him from taking his seat, and created a select committee to investigate Powell’s misdeeds. After the select committee conducted its investigation and hearings, in March 1967, the House adopted H.Res. 278 by a vote of 307 to 116, which excluded Powell from Congress and also censured him, fined him $25,000, took away his seniority, and declared his seat vacant. (You can read the House resolution here, which begins by citing Senator Joeseph McCarthy on standards for Congressional censure.)

Powell mounted a legal challenge to the censure, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The question they addressed was whether the House of Representatives may exclude a duly elected member if the member has satisfied the standing requirements of age, citizenship and residence as articulated in Article I Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. As observed on the page devoted to this case on Chicago-Kent’s Oyez Project site:

The Court noted that the proceedings against Powell were intended to exclude and not expel him from the chamber. That is an important distinction to recognize since the House does have the power under Article I, Section 5 to expel members. However, expulsion was not the purpose of the proceedings in this case. After analyzing the Framers’ debates on this issue, Chief Justice Warren concluded that since Powell had been lawfully elected by his constituents and since he met the constitutional requirements for membership in the House, that the chamber was powerless to exclude him.”

You can read the decision in Powell v. McCormack (395 U.S. 486, 1969) here.

Although Powell won the Court decision, the voters concluded he could no longer be effective in Congress, and replaced him with Harlem Assemblyman Charles Rangel in 1971. Powell died in 1972 at the age of 63.

Adam Clayton Powell

Adam Clayton Powell

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