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