Keeping America's "Eyes on the Prize"

Many in Congress dealt with racial discrimination by ignoring it. Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York insisted on breaking the silence.

In the 1930s and 1940s, a “Conservative Coalition” of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans opposed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” saying that all this federal legislation weakened states’ rights. Many also fought federal attempts to end segregation, arguing that states should decide for themselves. During World War II, Representative Powell, a flamboyant Harlem minister and African-American leader, forced the House to address discrimination.

Powell challenged segregation in the Capitol itself, fought to repeal the poll tax that disenfranchised black voters, and pressed to integrate the military. His amendments banning federal funds for projects supporting segregation made him “Mr. Civil Rights,” forcing the House to confront the issue until Congress outlawed segregation in 1964.

“The issues before us are legal, but more than that, moral and ethical.”
—Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York, 1956

“A vote against Powell would seem to be a vote against the Constitution.”
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower

  • Representative Powell preached at a major Harlem church before and during his quarter-century in Congress Representative Powell preached at a major Harlem church before and during his quarter-century in Congress. Here he addresses constituents duri

    Representative Powell preached at a major Harlem church before and during his quarter-century in Congress. Here he addresses constituents during a 1963 rally.

    © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • Representative Powell (left), with aide C. Sumner Stone, shepherded much of the “Great Society” legislation during the 1960s as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

    Representative Powell (left), with aide C. Sumner Stone, shepherded much of the “Great Society” legislation during the 1960s as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

    © Bettmann/CORBIS

  • Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Campaign Buttons, 1964

    Powell’s outspoken opposition to racism won him the enduring support of his New York constituents and civil rights advocates across the country.

    Abyssinian Baptist Church

  • Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and Pen

    As chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Representative Powell steered the passage of this 1964 law and other major social legislation. The president used this pen to sign the law.

    Abyssinian Baptist Church