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King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was one of America's most controversial and productive politicians, but little more than a memory of him remains 20 years after his death. In King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a broad and mostly balanced account, Boston Globe reporter Wil Haygood revives Powell's celebrated life and career.

The spoiled son of a respected church family, Powell used his light complexion to pass as white long before he settled on an African-American identity. Haygood traces these early years and beyond - to the Great Depression when Powell built soup kitchens and urged white merchants to hire blacks, to his 1938 ascension to the pulpit (on which his father had stood before him of the 10,000-member Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. As New York's most charismatic minister, he built a robust political career.

When Powell won Harlem's newly created congressional seat in 1944, the Pittsburgh Courier editorialized him as "the Negro chosen by some destiny" to lead blacks from darkness.

Not everyone, however, praised him. His craving for women, power and money earned him the name of "Playboy Pastor." If the biography has a weakness, it's the inability to fully convey how Powell squandered his political influence. For example, Powell claimed victory in many civil rights battles but was absent when the civil rights laws of 1957, 1960 and 1964 were passed. But no one dared to criticize him.

The 1960s was a mixed decade for Powell. He beat charges of tax evasion, became House Education and Labor Committee chairman and was ousted by the House after a series of questionable dealings rose to the fore. Despite being readmitted in 1968, Powell moved to the island of Bimini, where a picture of him holding a drink, a cigar and a young woman provoked outrage in his Harlem community. He died of cancer in 1972.

Haygood does a good balancing act of revealing the duality of Powell: the thoughtful political leader who built schools and hospitals, and the narcissist. Sadly, the same mesmerizing chutzpah that fueled his rise ultimately led to his fall.
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Author:Robinson, Frederick
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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