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Knocking on Harlem's Door


The Young Buck, Charles Rangel, 1970.  

The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr. moved his expanding congregation from West 40th Street to Harlem in 1923. His son Adam Clayton Powell Jr. turned the Abyssinian Baptist Church into a social and religious phenomenon during the late thirties, then crossed over, becoming the first nationally important black preacher-politician. Titles don’t come close to doing Powell justice, however. Imagine a man who combines the political intellect of Barack Obama with the pop-star appeal of Jay-Z. Or perhaps a melding of Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. With more rakish style than any of them.

At the height of his career, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. could pack churches in St. Louis, Tampa, or Los Angeles by visiting to deliver a Sunday-morning sermon. As a congressman, he created just as much of a stir touring Europe with his second wife, the singer and jazz pianist Hazel Scott, drinking with aristocrats and hipsters in the clubs of Paris, Edinburgh, and Munich—and the next day quizzing generals and black soldiers at the nearest American military base.

Powell’s long public presence, from the late thirties to 1972, was overstuffed with drama, and he had two overlapping periods of enormous significance in American life—one of popular influence and one of political weight. “His greatest cultural moment was in the fifties,” says Wil Haygood, who wrote King of the Cats, the definitive Powell biography. “He had no real clout on the Hill, but he traveled the world and became an American ambassador without portfolio. It made him hugely popular, nationally and internationally. He was the most voluble, visible, widely heard black American, a tremendous hero in the black community.”

Part of what gave Powell such weight was that he represented Harlem, the capital of black America. Harlem was ahead of the country in everything from music to racial progress, and so was Powell, who was a provocative advocate for civil rights beginning in the mid-forties. His practical power soared when LBJ took over the White House. In 1961, Powell became chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. “He kept an aggressive social agenda at the forefront of the American consciousness, and that hadn’t been done since FDR’s New Deal,” Haygood says. “To put hunger, the minimum wage, and food stamps on the front pages was unique and very forward-looking. Inside the House, he knew which strings to pull, who to reach on the phone at midnight, how to cajole. Without Powell, the War on Poverty wouldn’t have been nearly as successful.”

Yet the congressman’s race, his swagger, and his inattention to financial rules caused a nonstop run of controversy. He battled tax-evasion and libel charges, and in 1967, Powell was expelled from Congress, ostensibly for having his third wife on the congressional payroll and for misusing airline tickets; two years later, he was reinstated by the Supreme Court.

Powell’s legacy includes the raising of living standards across the country and the legitimizing of black voices in the national political conversation. Yet he grew increasingly distant, physically and emotionally, from his New York district. His charisma and cunning took him far, but he wasn’t interested in creating a political structure that would survive him. Two ambitious young politicians were more than happy to step into the void.

Charles Rangel and Percy Sutton met in a printer’s shop, picking up campaign posters in 1963. Each had a highly developed sense of what could be accomplished with politics, both in terms of doing well and doing good.

Rangel had grown up poor on Lenox Avenue, served heroically with the Army during the Korean War, then got his law degree at St. John’s. One of Rangel’s first lessons in politics came when he successfully appealed to Tammany Hall’s boss, Carmine DeSapio, to save his grandfather’s job as an elevator operator. Sutton grew up in Texas, where his father, a high-school principal, owned a collection of small businesses. Sutton served in World War II, then came to New York for law school; setting up a legal practice in Harlem, he spotted Malcolm X on a street corner and introduced himself to the Muslim minister as Malcolm’s new lawyer. Sutton was also on the front lines of the civil-rights movement, getting arrested in Alabama and Mississippi as a Freedom Rider. Yet he saw a path to local power in the political clubhouses of Harlem. Sutton eventually held offices as high as Manhattan borough president, but his great gift was as a strategist.

Rangel and Sutton started out as “reformers” eager to take on Harlem’s political regulars. But they soon found themselves studying at the knee of the legendary J. Raymond Jones. “The Fox” had learned Tammany’s tactics from the inside as its man uptown. In 1958, Jones aligned himself with Powell to help the congressman beat back a challenge from Tammany. Then the Fox set about creating an uptown version of Tammany. He saw talent in the younger ranks, many of them vets who’d returned to school on the G.I. Bill and now were looking for challenges. Jones taught Rangel and Sutton how business was really done, using the duo as Harlem operatives to help reelect Robert Wagner in a bruising 1961 mayoral campaign.


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