Blacks in Congress and Big-City Politics

From four perspectives, writers tell of African-Americans' struggles to gain and keep a place in the American power structure

BEFORE the 1940s, African-Americans mumbled and grumbled about the way they were treated in the United States. They asked for first-class citizenship, but with more timidity than bravado.

Then in 1942, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. thundered onto the scene, first as a street-smart pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist church, later as the first African-American elected to the New York City Council. Before he could complete a full term on the council, he was elected to Congress in a newly created district that made him New York's first black congressman.

Thus the saga for King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., by Wil Haygood (Houghton Mifflin, 476 pp., $24.95), began. Six-feet, 4-inches tall, somewhat thin, so fair skinned that many people mistook him for white, Powell was an imposing figure in a group.

The grandson of slaves, at the age of 29 Powell inherited the pastorate of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City from his father, who was a strong moral influence. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. had nurtured a church founded for and by Ethiopians, from a small congregation on 40th Street to a giant church in a new auditorium uptown in Harlem.

The father also cajoled, tempered, and prepared his son for the ministry. At Colgate University, Adam was a daring, undisciplined young man who passed for white before he was exposed and declared he would never try that again. He wrapped up his college career as an honor student.

This is the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. that Wil Haygood, a talented young journalist at the Boston Globe, tackles in a book that is sometimes as intriguing and unpredictable as its subject. And that may have been Haygood's plan: to present Powell's fantastic life in segments and bites, hopping from one interest to another without transition, without resolution.

In doing so, Haygood gives the reader Powell's moods, passions, and never-ending goals. He intersperses Powell's political activities with his love interests. He had three wives: Isabel Washington, an actress; Hazel Scott, a jazz and concert pianist; and Yvette Flores, a Puerto Rican woman. His final romantic involvement, Corrine Huff, was a beauty-contest winner.

Politically, Powell fought the system - Tammany Hall at home, Southern racists, and the seemingly all-powerful committee chairmen in the US House of Representatives. He soared through these struggles, including opposition from top civil rights leaders, throughout most of his career without losing his influence with his church.

Powell remained arrogant, swaggering, and confident until the end, when a persistent lawyer, taking the case of a woman Powell had referred to as a "bag woman," won the suit. This led Powell to become a fugitive - he could stay in New York only on Sundays - and he lost the Democratic primary after 21 years in Congress. Poor health also led to his final breath.

Haygood has woven a fascinating tale that often reads like fiction. "King of the Cats" provokes thought for Powell's debunkers as well as his admirers.

With the results of the recent 1992 presidential election counted and analyzed, the role of African-Americans in United States politics - at the national and local levels - remains a mystery to most voters. Black voters are commonly viewed as a monolithic group of people who are gung-ho Democrats, natural foes of the Republicans, and fair game for a third party that offers them what the two main political parties ignore.

Three writers, two blacks and one white liberal, shed some new light on the politics of the black community.

William L. Clay, a congressman from St. Louis, clarifies some of these mysteries by offering a national outlook for blacks in Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991 (Amistad Press, 412 pp., $24.95). The book has a foreword by the nation's lone black governor, L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia.

The title "Just Permanent Interests" refers to the principle behind many black politicians' philosophy, says Clay, and is based on the official motto of the Congressional Black Caucus: "Black people have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies ... just permanent interests."

Congressman Clay is the epitome of the successful black politician. He began his public career as an activist in St. Louis. Unlike most black politicians, he didn't rise through the ranks. He first ran for office at a time when Missouri had no African-Americans in Congress. He ran against three other strong candidates in the Democratic Party primary, won the race, and then replaced a veteran member of the House of Representatives.

In "Just Permanent Interests," Clay introduces his readers to every black member who ever sat in Congress. The book is up-to-date except for the new members of the 103rd Congress elected last November. It tells of the racial discrimination, the harassment, and the trials blacks have faced throughout American history, even when they have been legally elected to the House. Since Clay wrote his book, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois has been elected the first African-American woman in the United States Senat e.

"Just Permanent Interests" provides an overview of the black office holder through the years since the end of the Civil War. It also covers side issues - the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., in 1972, the black presidential campaigns of Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D) in 1972 and Rev. Jesse L. Jackson (D) in 1984 and 1988, the rise and fall of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and various efforts of Southern blacks to obtain the right to vote.

The Congressional Black Caucus motto was often ignored in Chicago politics, even by most black politicians, says William J. Grimshaw in Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine 1931-1991 (University of Chicago Press, 248 pp., $24.95). Most Chicago politicians, black as well as white, followed the dictates of the city's political machine as run by the Democratic Party between 1931 and 1991. Yet during this period, even during the reign of the late, powerful Mayor Richard J. Daley, some black p oliticians defied the machine bosses and voted for their people - and even won.

The title "Bitter Fruit" refers to the rewards most black officials have received for their pains and sacrifices to win a political office, regardless of party affiliation. Most blacks in Chicago were Republicans, loyal to the party of Abraham Lincoln. In 1936, they elected the first black Democrat to Congress.

But blacks did not vote Democratic nationally until 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to his fourth term in office. Since then, African-Americans have voted heavily for every Democratic presidential candidate.

"Bitter Fruit" is a thorough account of the impact that Chicago machine politics had on the hopes and fears of black hopefuls who sought a political voice in the Windy City.

Former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, a powerful but compassionate black politician, tells his story as the mayor of Philadelphia in In Goode Faith (Judson Press, 316 pp., $22.95). This committed public servant's eight years in office were clouded by one unfortunate incident. He tells all with the help of Joann Stevens, manager of news services at George Washington University in Washington, D. C., and a member of the faculty of Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa.

Mayor Goode says that he tried to govern for the people in defiance of machine politics, but that he was blindsided by disloyalty from within the city's police force. In his second year in office, Goode was faced with the difficult task of halting the operations of MOVE, a disruptive militant black organization. Goode says the police department betrayed his promise to the public that no one would be harmed in a raid on MOVE headquarters. Eleven people were killed, and Goode's reputation plummeted.

In Philadelphia, people literally begged Goode to run for mayor for his first term in 1984. He tells of his troubled times, even in his first year in office when virtually every idea he conceived was successful. He won his second term in spite of the MOVE tragedy.

"In Goode Faith" dramatizes the difficulties a black can face as mayor of a major city, even with the best of credentials as an administrator, a religious person, and a citizen.

All four books show that a minority politician can overcome the odds, although often he or she is not fully appreciated or recognized as an achiever.

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