I have been on vacation this week and just finished biographies on two important figures in the civil rights movement in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.) and Constance Baker Motley (Civil Rights Queen Constance Baker Motley and The Struggle for Equality). Their careers overlapped but did not intersect, as Powell chose the church and the Congress as his platform, while Motley worked as an attorney for the NAACP and then served on the federal judiciary in New York City. They had different styles, Powell deeply charismatic and controversial, Motley quietly dogged in pursuit of justice. They formed a pincer movement that pushed American society toward a more equal union.
Powell used public protest as a means of pressuring the establishment to change. Harlem Hospital was the only New York City healthcare center for Black patients. It had 250 beds for 200,000 Harlemites and was referred to as “the butcher shop” with patients sleeping in the hallway and groans echoing down the corridors. As assistant minister to his father at the Abyssinian Church, Powell gathered the flock to demand more Black doctors and the end of segregation of Black nurses at Harlem Hospital then marched on City Hall for the inevitable photo opportunity. The corrupt Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall, was awakened to a new force in previously quiet Harlem.
He was also aggressively promoting the hiring of Blacks by the largely Jewish owned businesses along 125th street in Harlem. This applied across restaurants and retailers. He organized a boycott of stores, with signs reading, “Buy Where You Can Work; Do Your Part.” On any day, Powell had a dozen stores picketed, with the protestors going six days a week with Sunday off for church. He spread the boycott to big business; Harlem residents turned off their lights and used candles to force Consolidated Edison to hire Blacks. “We have to realize that mass action is the most powerful force on earth,” he said.
Elected to Congress in 1944, he went on to serve for 25 years. In that period, he pushed the Eisenhower Administration to enforce the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education which declared school segregation unconstitutional. The Little Rock nine were a group of nine Black students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School, who were able to come to school only when President Eisenhower sent the National Guard. He was one of President Johnson’s most important advocates of legislation that constituted the Great Society which was to deal with the reality of 1/5 of Americans going to bed hungry, half of whom were Black people, with six of 10 of the families headed by a person with only a grade school education. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public places and in employment. Then Powell shepherded the Federal Education Act through Congress in 1965, ending a decades-long effort to close the gap between funding available for White and Black education in America. The U.S. Secretary of Education. Francis Keppel, referred to Powell’s leadership as a “gorgeous performance.”
Motley was able to attend college at New York University through the good graces of a local philanthropist in New Haven who saw promise in the high school student. Graduating from Columbia Law School, she found it impossible to get a job at a Wall Street law firm, so she went to work for Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Motley wrote the complaint for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954. This was only the beginning of her efforts across the South to enable truly color-blind education. She was the team leader in the desegregation of the University of Georgia law school in 1961. Then she went on to help James Meredith gain admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962. The white backlash to the Black student was so fierce that Meredith nearly left school; Motley persuaded the former soldier that he needed to stay the course. She was deeply involved in the integration of schools in Birmingham, Alabama, working closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When 1,000 Black students were expelled from school for protesting segregated classrooms, Motley won an Appeals Court order overturning the expulsions, which Motley recalled as “her greatest professional satisfaction.”
She turned to politics in 1964 as the first Black woman elected to the New York State Senate then the first woman elected as Manhattan Borough President. She was appointed to the federal bench in New York City by President Johnson in 1966; she served with distinction for nearly 40 years. One landmark case, Blank vs. Sullivan and Cromwell, opened opportunities to women in top law firms, bringing it full circle given her own experience on graduating law school.
Stories about heroes and heroines like Powell, Motley and historic Supreme Court Justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson are important. They inspire future generations to dream about what is possible and what they could become. There are lessons in politics to be absorbed, such as Powell working with Republicans and Democrats in the mid-50s to advance the civil rights agenda. There are also valuable aspects of learning from mentors; for Powell his father, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., while for Motley it was Thurgood Marshall, who went onto the Supreme Court in the mid-60s. Whether on the front lines in public protest or on the floor of the Congress or in a Southern courtroom, the King and the Queen were invaluable leaders in the continued struggle for civil rights.
Richard Edelman is CEO.