Carl Horowitz

The term “black civil-rights leader” has acquired a bad name over the last few decades – and deservedly so.  This political type cannot accept the fact that his mission effectively was accomplished decades ago.  Thus, he prefers to stoke the fires of collective grievance so as to retain his audiences and his sense of importance.   

Knowing how to identify and defeat targets, and form “partnerships” with the vanquished – and under the guise of a national “conversation” on race – is a fine art.  High practitioners such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond have few peers when it comes to instilling anger in black audiences and fearful shame in white ones.  But even they could take a few refresher lessons from the man instrumental in getting the ball rolling some 70 years ago, the late Harlem clergyman and Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.      

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the charismatic Powell, born on November 29, 1908.  He’s been the subject of several biographies and a Showtime cable TV network film.  As much as Martin Luther King Jr., he left an indelible stamp on the way people in this country think about race. 

A hero to millions of blacks, in an out of New York, Adam Clayton Powell had extensive white ancestry on both sides of his family.  Indeed, at first glance it was easy to mistake him for Caucasian.  During his youth, many people did.  Yet like so many light-skinned blacks – think of Julian Bond, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama – his sense that his blackness was a hindrance to social advancement proved a radicalizing experience.  Powell harbored mistrust of whites and outright contempt for black “Uncle Toms” who took orders from them.  Whether you loved Adam Clayton Powell or hated him, he made sure of one thing:  You never saw him taking orders.  That swagger eventually would rub off on a certain preadolescent boy who one day would come to define America’s race relations more than anyone else.  But I digress.                

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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