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Wyatt Tee Walker
“TWO PASTORS WHO SERVED BEYOND THE FOUR WALLS”
ADAM CLAYTON POWELL, JR..
Civil Rights Leader, Congressman, Baptist Minister
When the Honorable Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. was the United States representative from New York – the Congressman for Harlem – he was THE Congressional Black Caucus. His work in Congress affected Black people all over the country, though he only represented Harlem, New York. He was colorful, resourceful and independent; he did what he did for Black people; he was also a Baptist preacher – the pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church. In appearance, he look like a White man, but when he spoke, he sounded all Black – and he spoke for Black people. He was named after his father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and he named his son after himself, Adam Clayton Powell III – and there’s also an Adam Clayton Powell IV.
As a congressman, he was powerful and since there were only a few Black Congressmen around during his time, he stood out. He became the chairman of the Labor and Education Committee, and in that position, he engineered many important pieces of social legislation that benefited Blacks nationwide including Medicare, Medicaid, and Headstart. He also contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Powell institutionalized the Black Agenda, while standing on the shoulders of those before him, and embodying the spirit of the movements they had put in place, laying the foundation for those who came after him, including the Congressional Black Caucus.
Powell got his start in the church from his father, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, who established a social/political atmosphere through the church that was eventually carried on by his famous son. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, his light skin color came from his maternal grandfather and his mother’s ancestors. He was educated in the public schools, City College of New York and in 1930, he graduated from Colgate University, Hamilton, New York. A year later, Powell received his Master’s Degree from Columbia University and studied for the ministry at Shaw University.
During the Depression, he became a prominent voice in Harlem, organizing mass meetings, rent strikes and public protests in front of White establishments and construction work sites, while assisting his father in the church. Powell succeeded his father in 1937 when the elder Powell retired after 29 years as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. In 1941, he became the first Black to be elected to the city council of New York City. He was a “new breed” of religious/political leader, who aligned himself with the civil rights movement and social activism. On the city council, he pressed for Black motormen and conductors in public transportation facilities, and the hiring of Blacks on the academic staff of the city colleges of New York. After four years there, he was catapulted to the U.S. Congress where he earned the reputation as a staunch defender and promoter of the rights of Black people throughout America.
Once in Congress, Powell demanded and got the respect and the privileges afforded his White colleagues; he took the position that, “equality is equality …. and that I am a member of Congress as good as any body else.” He immediately challenged the status quo that forbade Blacks from using Capitol Hill facilities. He had joined William Dawson (D-Chicago) who was the only other Black member of the House. Furthermore, he reportedly stressed at one of his press conferences, “I do not do any more than any other member of Congress, but through the Grace of God, I’ll do no less.”
Still in Congress, he developed a loyal public following of constituents on his home turf. He crusaded in and around Harlem for decent jobs and housing for Blacks, and pushed for legislation in Washington, D.C. for the same agenda on a national scale. He maneuvered about 50 bills through Congress and as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, he orchestrated passage of the president’s “new freedom” legislation in 1960. When President Johnson came into office, Powell was instrumental in the passage of his (Johnson’s) “Great Society” social programs.
Powell’s personal life was as public as his public life was as a legislator. He was married three times. His first wife was entertainer Isabelle Washington with whom he adopted a son, Preston. His second wife, Hazel Scott, was a singer from Trinidad and together they bore a son, Adam Clayton Powell III. His third wife, Yvette Diago, was a Puerto Rican with whom he had another son, Adam Clayton Powell Diago who dropped his mother’s surname and became Adam Clayton Powell IV.
Back in Congress, Powell pushed legislation that made lynching a federal crime and chided Congress for allowing it to “flourish” unabated. He challenged the Southerners’ practice of charging Blacks a poll tax to vote, and the use of the word “nigger” during congressional sessions by its racist members. He understood the value of politics as a tool in the struggle that Black people were in constantly, in order to gain a full measure freedom, justice and equality.
Not only did Powell wage a tireless and mostly singular effort to correct the historical wrongs that were being done to Black people in the United States, but he also recognized the need to coordinate his work with Black freedom fighters in other parts of the world, particularly those in and from the African continent. In 1955, Powell attended the Bandung Conference in Indonesia where many of the world’s oppressed nations were meeting to formulate a united front to rid their respective countries from the yoke of colonialism. There, he met the principals: Nkrumah (Ghana), Nasser (Egypt), Nehru (India) Sukarno (Indonesia), Chou En Lai (China) and Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), and many other lesser-known named persons within the struggle.
In the sixties, Powell worked with both Minister Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He sometimes clashed with King, but the two of them also realized their disagreement was subservient to the overall Civil Rights Struggle. With Malcolm X, Powell studied the way he held mass rallies in Harlem and was stimulated by the Minister’s “grassroots” credentials. They appeared together with Kwame Nkrumah in Harlem in 1956; Powell had met Nkrumah the year before at the Bandung Conference.
Powell came under increased scrutiny and intense pressure from members of Congress for his alleged mismanagement of funds in the mid-sixties. He founded a retreat on the island of Bimini, in the Bahamas and would often travel there, sometimes missing committee meetings. Rumor had it that his lifestyle did not connect to those whom he represented in Congress, and he supposedly refused to pay a judgment that was rendered against him for slander.
Eventually Powell was stripped of his committee chairmanship, followed by an investigation by the House Judiciary Committee. He was expelled from Congress in 1967. He again won a special election for the vacancy that his expulsion had created, but did not take his seat. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor that the expulsion was unconstitutional including the denial of his seniority status when he returned to Congress. At the next primary election, he was defeated by a newcomer, Charles Rangel, and he also failed to get on the ballot as an independent for the general election in November that same year.
Frustrated and tired, he resigned as pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, a position he had maintained since his father’s retirement and throughout his years in Congress. He moved to Bimini where, in April 1972, he became gravely ill. Powell was flown to a Miami hospital where, at the age of 63, he died. His ashes was taken by airplane and scattered over Bimini.
Powell embodied the succession of Black religious leaders and culminated at the apex of Black politics. He left large footprints in the sands of time.
WYATT TEE WALKER
Civil Rights Pioneer, Aide to Dr. King, Baptist Minister
In the movie, “Malcolm X,” there was a scene after Malcolm was killed, when a person came out of the hospital and spoke to crowd saying, “The man you knew as Malcolm X is no more.” That was Wyatt Tee Walker. He was an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a special assistant to Governor Rockefeller of New York, pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church, (Harlem) and Canaan Baptist Church New York, and a civil rights activist. According to historical records, he may not have been showcased in most history books written about the Civil Rights Movement, but Walker made significant contributions that were crucial to the success of that movement, and beyond.
Born in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1929, he stated unapologetically that his father was a “race man,” a pastor and his role model. He reportedly said, “My father reacted to anything that smacked of discrimination or prejudice and I was under that influence. He was my first hero.” Walker grew up in New Jersey where he attended primary and secondary schools in Merchantville. He displayed early traces of his father’s “race” influence and it went with him throughout his professional life. He attended the Virginia Union University in 1946 where he earned his undergraduate and divinity degrees. He also holds a doctorate degree from Rochester Theological Center and did graduate studies and research at the University of Ife in Nigeria and the University of Ghana.
At that time, Blacks were relegated to the “back of the bus” while riding in public transportation and Walker was often put off streetcars because of his unwillingness to settle for unequal treatment by riding in the back. (That was the pre Rosa Parks era). His career as a pastor in the pulpit, minister in the field and civil rights activist, began at Gillfield Baptist Church Petersburg, Virginia in the 1950s where he began organizing civil rights workers and demonstrators. There he led a group of Blacks to the local library that was openly tagged “for Whites only.” That resulted in Walker’s first of seventeen arrests and it brought his work to the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he had met during an inter-seminary meeting when the latter was a student at Crozier Theological Seminary. King invited him to help with the bigger nationwide Civil Rights Struggle that was in its infancy.
He eventually became a close confidante of King and when King was hospitalized Walker wrote a letter to him of his (Walker’s) congregation concern for his (King’s) health and proposed several dates for King to speak in Petersburg. This was the first paragraph of King’s response to Walker’s letter: “This is just a note to acknowledge receipt of your very kind letter of October 16. I should say to you in the beginning that I must be intensely interested in you and your work, because this is about the first letter that I have dictated to my secretary since the incident in New York. My doctors have urged me to rest at least another month without even dictating letters. But for Tee Walker, I am willing to disobey my doctors’ orders.”
Walker became involved in many organizations that were fighting for civil rights. He served as president of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., the state director of the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.) and founded the Petersburg Improvement Association – an organization patterned and named after the Montgomery Improvement Association. In 1958, Walker joined the board of directors of King’s fledging organization Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) and built support for it throughout the state of Virginia.
In 1960, he left his post at Gillfield Baptist Church to become the executive director of S.C.L.C. in Atlanta, Georgia. A seasoned and efficient administrator, he brought order to the organization’s fundraising efforts and broadened its civil rights activities. When King was jailed in Birmingham, Walker circulated the now famous “letter from a Birmingham Jail” and was the chief architect of “project C,” a series of boycotts and protests marches aimed at desegregating Birmingham, Alabama.
Walker was instrumental in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, designed to highlight the absence of jobs and “real” freedom for Black Americans which King skillfully articulated the check that was given to Blacks by the U.S. government, but came back as “non-sufficient” funds. He left S.C.L.C. in 1964 and worked for a new publishing venture, the Negro Heritage Library, which sought to increase Black history in school curricula; he became its president after two years. Then in 1967, he went to pastor Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, New York.
While there, he delved into civic affairs, advocating affordable housing and better schools in and around Harlem. He was appointed as special assistant to the Governor of New York for urban affairs where he helped to ease racial tensions during school desegregation and labor disputes. A charter school in New York City was named in honor of Walker and his wife, Ann. He joined the board of directors of Freedom National Bank, the nation’s largest and most profitable bank, and served three terms as its chairman of the board; and he chaired a consortium for the Central Harlem Development responsible for millions in housing construction in Harlem.
Walker is also internationally known as a human rights activist, an exhibiting artist, a composer and authority of Black church music, a church historian and an author of many books. Rev. Jesse Jackson has reportedly referred to Walker as “Harlem’s Renaissance Man” for his varied careers, multiple gifts and talents.
He was among those battling apartheid in South Africa – when the U.S. government adopted a constructive engagement policy towards the White minority regime – that eventually led to the release of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of the apartheid system. Walker was the first Black American to meet with Chairman Yasser Arafat since the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip and Jericho. He viewed the Palestine’s fight for self-determination parallel with his anti-apartheid activities. He became president of the American Committee on Africa which works to defend human rights, save U.S. aid for Africa and help the people of Africa rebuild their communities.
After 37 years at Canaan in 2004, Walker returned to live in Chester, Virginia. He is still sought after as a speaker and travels widely throughout the world to advance the cause of human rights, social justice and equality.