Adam Clayton Powell Jr was born on 29 November, 1908 in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, moved the family to New York City while Powell was still a baby. After attending public schools and the City College of New York, Powell graduated with a BA from Colgate University in 1930, and earned an MA in Religious Education from Columbia University in 1931.
In 1930, Powell began his civil rights crusade by leading a protest against Harlem Hospital for firing five black doctors because of race. In 1932, he started a church-sponsored relief programme providing food, clothing and temporary jobs for thousands of Harlem's homeless and unemployed. Powell established himself as a successful and charismatic civil rights leader, forcing businesses, and even the 1939 World's Fair, to hire and promote black employees. In 1936, Powell succeeded his father as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, and in 1941 he was elected to the New York City Council. From 1941 to 1945 he published and edited a weekly newspaper, The People's Voice, and in 1944 he was elected to Congress as a Democrat.
On 3 January, 1945, Powell began his first term of Congress, and started shaking up the place almost immediately. He challenged congressional policies that were racist, taking black constituents to dinner in the 'whites only' House restaurant, ordering his staff to eat there whether they were hungry or not. Powell quickly made enemies with segregationist John E Rankin of Mississippi, introducing legislation to outlaw lynching and poll taxes, and to ban discrimination in the armed forces, housing, employment and transportation. He attached his anti-discrimination clause to so many bills that the rider became known as the Powell Amendment. In 1956 he broke with the party and supported Eisenhower for re-election. In 1958 Powell was charged with income tax evasion, but the trial ended in a hung jury.
In 1961 he became chairman of the 'Committee on Education and Labor'. Under his leadership, the Committee approved over fifty measures authorising federal programmes for minimum wage increases, education and training for the deaf, school lunches, vocational training, student loans and standards for wages and work hours, as well as aid to elementary and secondary education and public libraries.
Powell had reached the plateau of success in his career, but soon his life was rocked by scandal. He was under fire for his numerous trips abroad at public expense, his constant absenteeism, and his refusal to pay a slander judgement. On 9 January, 1967, the House Democratic Caucus stripped Powell of his committee chairmanship, and refused to seat him, pending an investigation by the Judiciary Committee. The following month, the committee recommended that Powell be censured, fined, and deprived of seniority, but on 1 March the House rejected these proposals and voted 307 to 116 to exclude him from the Congress for the rest of the term. He was re-elected to a 12th term in November, but the House voted to deny him his seniority, and Powell refused to take his seat.
In June 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the House had acted unconstitutionally when it excluded him from the 90th Congress, and Powell finally returned to his seat. He lost the next election and died on 4 April, 1972.