By David Mingolla
I: A Man and his Voice
As a boy and a young man, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. could not find his place. Neither he nor others knew what it should be, let alone what it was. The son of a wealthy New York minister, Powell moved through the city’s school system without ever truly taking root. Classmates remember him as approachable but solitary — an eccentric introvert. He would go on to attend Colgate University, leaving his family and acquaintances behind for four years. He returned from the school’s sylvan, insulated campus to a New York bristling with energy. Racial tension was widespread, and Powell worked tirelessly to establish a name and reputation for himself. He got his start in community organizing, buoyed by his father’s Harlem-based church. The congregation provided Powell, Jr. with a loyal base of support, and it also served as a rallying point for Harlem’s hopeful, downtrodden citizens. Powell gave sermons, and they responded; they spoke, and he listened in turn. He wasted little time turning his resolve into action.
In 1942, Powell founded a weekly paper that stretched Harlem’s city limits. He called it The People’s Voice, and the publication read like an extension of Powell’s enigmatic personality. The paper’s staff saw the venture for what it was — a political pedestal for its founder — and still they happily, albeit exhaustingly, forged ahead. For as Powell’s biographer, Wil Haygood, is quick to note, The People’s Voice drew attention to its charismatic editor almost to a fault. Powell used the magazine for political leverage, whereas its writers did not seek — nor did they garner — the same kind of crossover publicity. The line between “Adam Clayton Powell, jr.” and “Powell’s paper” would blur considerably over the course of the magazine’s run, especially as Powell moved into national politics. But even so, publicity for the Voice was publicity for Harlem, a city as in need of reform as it was consistently neglected. It is hard to overestimate the paper’s influence there, as well in black America more generally. It opened doors and minds for decades to come.
The aim of this project is twofold: first, to uncover key articles and salient excerpts from The People’s Voice; and second, to trace Powell’s presence in and influence on its publications. The paper ran from 1942 until 1948, releasing seven full years of issues before discontinuing its eighth volume in April 1948. The pages and pictures reproduced here run alongside commentary on Powell’s involvement in the Voice. He was responsible for its rise, and his departure from the paper in 1946 foresaw its decline. But just as it spoke for New Yorkers in the 1940s, it is my hope that The People’s Voice continues to speak for itself.
II: Spokesman in Search of an Audience
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. spent his youth weaving through a diverse array of people and places. His blond hair and fair skin led childhood playmates to question whether he was black, white, or even Italian.[i] The second of two children, Adam looked up to his father, “a severe man…nearly old enough to be his grandfather” who gave his active and only son plenty of space to roam.[ii] Powell, Jr. would go on to attend Townsend Harris Hall in New York, a high school too proud to call itself by name. The school enforced a suit-and-tie dress code and dropped failing students without a thought — it was also “a laboratory for the brightest young minds in Manhattan.”[iii] But there, too, Powell did not find a group of his own. His friendships did not stretch far beyond the classroom, and he entertained himself after hours at local haunts. On March 26, 1926, the eve of his graduation from high school, Powell’s older sister Blanche died a sudden and unexpected death.[iv] As 18 year-old Adam struggled to cope, his family convened and decided that he could use a dose of discipline in the countryside: Colgate University beckoned.[v]
Powell’s freshman roommate, like most others, “assumed that he was white”; the four other black students enrolled at the time tried, and failed, to locate the missing fifth they had heard about.[vi] Powell spent the interim hidden in plain sight. He took regular trips back to Harlem, returning with liquor and women in tow. He brought two kinds of prohibited items back with him, and this caused quite a stir on campus for a time. In characteristic fashion, though, Powell sought out privacy even as he drew attention. A month before leaving the University, where he majored in biblical literature, Powell gave his first sermon “in the Abyssinian pulpit, before the usual congregation of about four thousand people.”[vii] He was never ordained, having never been trained, but as one attendee would write, “he can handle the people.”[viii] Powell finished with Colgate in 1930, more confident and enigmatic than ever.
He returned to a Harlem that lacked direction and capital. The Depression had crippled the city, and Adam Powell, Sr. could only find a job for his son thanks to an Emergency Work Bureau.[ix] The younger Powell organized food runs, church dinners, and shoe handouts on the Bureau’s meager budget. Word spread quickly of his dedication to community organizing, and the political climate could not have been more favorable. The Progressive Party had returned to Harlem in 1924, fighting for “labor laws, better control over the political nominating process, and more rights for minorities and women.”[x] Progressive representatives, however, needed more experience in the political arena before they could give their dreams a chance to become policy. Still, they were cresting in the early 1930s, just when Powell picked his first political battle. As problems mounted and segregation persisted within Harlem Hospital, Powell staked out City Hall alongside 1,500 protestors.[xi] City Hall officials could not ignore his accusations of bigotry and negligence indefinitely, least of all in an election year.
Powell eventually forced the resignation of J.G. Greeff, director of the Hospital, and continued to draw a following with his sermons.[xii] He then assisted on Joseph McKee’s mayoral campaign in the run-up to the 1933 elections.[xiii] Although Fiorello La Guardia would top McKee and begin to reshuffle Manhattan city government, Powell had won recognition for his efforts and was invigorated by his work in the high-stakes campaign. He demanded that La Guardia focus more attention on Harlem, and the community that supported Powell soon “became the test of his progressivism.”[xiv] Just as he sought political influence, Harlem’s voters sought after him.
Powell’s popularity, along with the growing congregation of the church where he spoke, furnished him with the component parts of a political machine. The Amsterdam News, which brought politics to liberal readers in Harlem, gave Powell reverent press coverage.[xv] The paper even hired him to write columns, advertising their newest acquisition as “a liberal champion for the lowly and oppressed.”[xvi] And in late 1936, two developments would swing political doors wide open for Powell. That year, New Yorkers voted in favor of proportional representation, whereby each district’s voting strength would be tied to its population.[xvii] Soon after, Adam Powell, Sr. turned over control of the Abyssinian Baptist Church — membership 15,000 — to his son.[xviii] Powell, Jr. saw these changes as an opportunity to lead a now-empowered Harlem into the political arena. He formed the People’s Committee, which gathered together Communists, NAACP members, the jobless, and more to picket stores along 125th Street.[xix] Although blacks could shop at stores lining the street, they could not work there. Powell also leveraged the support he had gained in Harlem to run for city council, which at the time could not boast a single black representative.[xx] He was sworn in on January 1, 1942, not weeks after America had entered World War II.[xxi] Of course, Powell was not content to legislate from above, nor could he afford to ignore his now-distant electorate. He needed to reconnect with his community — and he longed to give them a pulpit of their own.
III: Black and White Print
With the help of Charles Buchanan, who operated the Savoy Ballroom, Powell brought a new periodical to New York. True to his political agenda, he dubbed it The People’s Voice. Its offices stood above Woolworth’s department store (a Harlem favorite) at 210 West 125th Street.[xxii] There was a surge of interest in the project from the outset and, fortunately for Powell, New York was overflowing with talented young writers and artists. He even held interviews at church to accommodate the rush of eager applicants. Powell poached, too, from the staff of the Amsterdam News, reeling in Marvel Cooke and St. Claire Bourne almost immediately.[xxiii] Among others, the paper’s original staff also included Ferdinand Smith (columnist, labor movement backer); Benjamin Davis (columnist, radical wing); Fredi Washington (arts writer by title, New York cosmopolitan by trade); and Ollie Harrington (artist and cartoonist).[xxiv] Ann Petry was another early addition to the staff. Coming as she did from Connecticut, the hectic bustle of Harlem spurred her to begin writing a novel alongside her duties for the Voice. (That novel, published four years later in 1946, is entitled The Street and is on the syllabus for this very course.) All told, Powell’s enterprise practically sang with creative and political energy.
The first issue of The People’s Voice debuted on February 14, 1942. It was hardly lost on the editors that this coincided with the anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birthday.[xxv] Roughly 40 pages of bold black and white print greeted Harlem that winter Saturday. Below are four notable pages from the inaugural issue.
The new paper shook Harlem to its already-unstable foundations. The black community there, in fact, did not take fondly to it early on.[xxvi] Some accused it of being a white man’s paper with a black front; with Buchanan behind the editor’s desk and national advertisers jockeying for their share, who could blame them? Others were unused to the explosion of bold criticism that the Voice trademarked. Announcing itself as “America’s Greatest Negro Newspaper” from the very first issue did nothing to quiet skeptics. But like Powell himself, the paper was upfront and unapologetic about its aggressive — some would say blunt — approach to the news. On page four of the first issue, an array of staff portraits hangs over the following caption:
These photos are published in line with the Voice’s intent to introduce its staff to the public, that we may all know one another -signed, Adam Clayton Powell [rarely “Jr.”] and Charles P. Buchanan
As much as he would plumb the paper’s political influence, Powell also imbued his creation with local spirit. Change could not come easily to Harlem, and he was not the waiting type.
As if to reinforce its founders’ vision, The People’s Voice littered its first year of issues with populist overtones. Tucked in the bottom right-hand corner of page three of the February 21, 1942 issue, a small section entitled “Left-Handed Compliment” ran as follows:
Time magazine thought the first issue of the Voice was too well-edited to have been done by people of the Ethiopian persuasion. Time’s brilliant solution: The Voice copy (news stories) is turned over to the editorial staff of PM. In other words — Negroes write the stories, white gents edit them. TRUTH: All news stories in the Voice are written by the Voice staff, are not edited other than by the Voice copy desk (all Negro).
Such blurbs hinted at Powell’s growing political clout in Harlem and greater New York. Even while working on the paper, he never ceased his self-described “ruckus raising” — especially when he smelled blood. After a white policeman shot and killed a black man from Harlem in spring 1942, Powell rushed to distribute this leaflet throughout the city:
ONE MORE NEGRO BRUTALLY BEATEN AND KILLED!
SHOT DOWN LIKE A DOG BY THE POLICE
ALL OUT HARLEM
LET’S PACK THE GOLDEN GATE AT 5 P.M.
142ND STREET AND LENOX AVENUE
THIS SUNDAY, MAY 17
“I AM AN AMERICAN DAY”
FREE ADMISSIONS REAL SPEAKERS
…HEAR THE EYE WITNESSES…
COUNCILMAN ADAM CLAYTON POWELL, JR. CHAIRMAN[xxvii]
The winds of social change were swirling around Powell, partly of his own making. With the help of his Voice, he greeted them with open windows.
Powell did not miss an opportunity to solicit his readers’ loyalty and support. In a weekly feature called the “Soapbox,” he shared his thoughts on pressing issues of the day. Nearly every such editorial begins with an appeal to “the people” and closes with a charge to action. In essence, the column gave Powell a circulating pulpit.
Powell used later Soapbox columns — many of them dictated to a stenographer and wired to Harlem — to banish doubts about where his loyalty lay. An October 24, 1942 issue saw Powell comment on what he believed was an underwhelming gubernatorial race. In tune with his unwavering support of “the people,” Powell pledged to support Harold Burton “because he has put the Negro people ahead of party affiliations.” The next week’s issue went so far as to provide a sample voting ballot across from Powell’s Soapbox. Candidates’ names were circled if the Voice felt they “deserve[d] the all-out support of Negro voters especially.” The paper deluded no one in its first, frenetic year of life.
Nor did its artwork. Resident cartoonist Ollie Harrington showcased his skill weekly with stark, powerful drawings. One in particular, a sort of charcoal triptych from the paper’s very first issue, was practically a protest in its own right. It is reproduced below along with two other pieces.
The People’s Voice was quickly becoming the talk of the town. As Harrington’s A-B-C spread declares, sales picked up within months and showed no signs of slowing. The paper thrived on waves of enthusiasm and ambition. Like a certain Adam Clayton Powell, it simply could not be ignored.
IV: Beyond City Limits
Despite, or perhaps because of, the attention it drew, first in Harlem and then nationally, the Voice expanded in scope as 1943 gave way to 1944. Dehumanizing violence throughout Europe threw into relief questions of civil and human rights at home. Powell and his backers sensed an opportunity, and they moved quickly to capitalize on it. From the beginning of the paper’s second run — February 1943 and on — articles on labor rights and living standards infiltrated nearly every issue. Comparisons between Jewish Europe and black America abounded. For the magazine sought to do more than just air the hard questions; it actively ramped up reader involvement. The Voice revamped an old column, for example, and transformed it into a regular — soon to be popular — feature. Midway through a given issue, a bold two-page spread would announce “The People’s Town Hall.” On the left-hand page, a Harrington comic drew eyes to another of Powell’s editorials. The right-hand page posed a “Most Important Question of the Week.” Local writers were enlisted to pen Pro and Con responses to the question, and the Voice even reserved a space for answers from “The People” (usually residents of Harlem). It was here, and in similar features, that the paper attempted to collapse the distance between its two main objects of interest: the intensely local and the broadly national. For his part, Powell was moving in wider and wider political circles, and he wanted readers to follow suit. So the Voice, as was its wont, continued to open up sightlines between Harlem, New York, and the rest of the country. Below are select issues from its second and third runs.
Even as it branched out into more visible and more sensitive issues, The People’s Voice stayed true to its style. Few other publications went so straight for the throat, and with such unabashed honesty. And the paper never failed to infuse its cover stories with the breathless air of an exposé. For the sake of comparison, I have juxtaposed a typical cover page and foldout from the Voice with those of PM, a weekly journal most popular in the late 1930s.
The Voice’s popularity and higher profile, however, could not completely mask changes to its M.O. Powell came by the office less and less as the war dragged to a close, and, if anything, his presence in the paper waned. His name, once plastered on seemingly every page, did not stray much beyond the two or three columns he had made his own. A notable exception came, not surprisingly, in the form of Powell’s Congressional campaign. The People’s Voice tracked its progress daily and dutifully spread the word, “list[ing] his weeklong nightly schedule of street-corner appearances.”[xxviii] In more ways than one, the paper was stretching — pushing, some insisted — what few limits it had.
Volumes IV and V of the Voice, which together ran from February 1945 to 1947, saw the paper turn its attention back home. Welcoming the return of black soldiers just as it had supported them abroad, the new issues leveled their gaze on racial tension. As before, coverage on local conflicts competed for space with the national struggle for civil rights. But too often, post-war expectations for social equality met with a chaotic, often incomprehensible reality.
It did not help, either, that the Voice had begun to suffer from its own success. Its popularity paved career paths for a number of once-unknown writers and artists, Benjamin Davis and Ollie Harrington chief among them. But in time, high turnover set in for good. While it did keep costs manageable and ideas flowing, the carousel of new appointments ate away at the paper’s reserves. Staff stability and camaraderie were no longer guarantees. And for an operation as lively and bustling as Powell’s, this took its toll. The Voice had long ago ceased to be a Harlem-centered and -centric operation. Its material was wearing thin.
V: Parting Words
1946 marked a year of upheaval and transition for The People’s Voice. With Powell on an extended stay in Washington, D.C. for Congressional work, staffer Doxey Wilkerson “assumed a lot of responsibility for day-to-day operations of the newspaper.”[xxix] Like Marvel Cooke, Benjamin Davis, and a number of other contributors to the Voice, Wilkerson was an open Communist sympathizer. Even though the paper had already come under fire for its borderline radical tendencies, Wilkerson would not relent. “Proud and stubborn” as he was, he “swung the paper’s tone even [further] leftward” — a choice that did not escape the notice of Powell’s colleagues in Congress.[xxx] Under pressure from allies and enemies alike, and now at a healthy remove from his own publication, Powell fired Wilkerson in early 1946.[xxxi] A string of resignations followed, and they permanently altered the makeup of the magazine. Marvel Cooke left “fully convinced that the government had planted a spy in the newsroom”; Fredi Washington stepped down; still riding a wave of fame from The Street, Ann Petry returned home to Old Saybrook, CT; and St. Clair Bourne was notified by courier — during the workday, while he was on break — that he had been fired, too.[xxxii] Soon infighting broke out as to whose party line the Voice should back. With so many opinions and such little agreement, the paper wore down from the inside out.
In December of 1946, Powell issued a public statement that would seal his paper’s fate. In so many words, he announced that “congressional duties and the pastorate of Abyssinian [Baptist Church] were more than enough to occupy his time.”[xxxiii] Days later he completed the transaction, cutting ties with and selling his shares in the newspaper. Effective December 10, Powell officially “resign[ed] his positions as editor and chairman of the Powell-Buchanan Publishing Corporation.”[xxxiv] As distant from the paper as he had become, he now moved on for good. Perhaps ironically, Powell would draw more press coverage in the coming decade, working as he did on civil rights, than the struggling Voice could have given him. Church membership had only grown throughout the war, and a Congress flush with Southern Democrats would challenge Powell’s every bombastic move. His role at the The People’s Voice had dwindled to that of figurehead, but even so, he left the paper without most of its original staff. He also left it, as would become evident, without the purpose and drive that had carried it to fame. The Voice was falling silent.
The newspaper’s sixth and penultimate run spanned from February 15, 1947 to February 7, 1948. It was the first and only year of issues compiled without Powell’s oversight or input. Outside contributors were brought in to write guest articles, and the paper focused its coverage on the battle for civil and workers’ liberties. Try as it might, though, the Voice could not disguise its failing health. Long-form articles were increasingly dropped for less precise, more episodic features. Ads began to take up as much as half of some pages and showed no signs of slowing their advances. Here are comparable spreads from second- and fifth-year issues:
The paper was losing its hold on Harlem and could not stay afloat indefinitely. The last, discontinued run of The People’s Voice began in February 1948 and lasted only two months. Its final issues covered racial violence and political moves above nearly all else. Features on progress in Harlem, numerous as they were, served to reinforce how slowly progress was being made. The Voice had been the city’s beacon, shining bright for a time and — as hungry fires do — burning itself out. Where no natural flame could, though, it had brought Harlem into a wide and public field of view. The paper’s service to the city and to New York did not, by any means, end with its last issue.
Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. organized more than his fair share of demonstrations. Even so, The People’s Voice may have been his most successful and most enduring. He energized Harlem with issues that were relevant to its concerns and needs. Just as impressive, the paper made the city and its citizens more relevant, as well. They, and black America more generally, staked out a permanent place in the national conversation on civil rights. With the help of his newspaper, Powell made that conversation both political and unavoidable — an especially welcome change, given the blanket of neglect usually laid over Harlem. For $3 a year — the subscription rate never rose — Powell offered his Voice to Harlem and greater New York. And his readers responded in turn; at its peak, the paper sold between 40,000 and 50,000 copies a week.[xxxv] With one another’s support, Powell and his followers made previously inconceivable progress, and then paved the way for more. Invisible as the paper was in its own time and in many parts of the country, its legacy is anything but. Its influence reaches from the issues and articles presented here well into modern America. The People’s Voice was also the people’s bridge.
N.B. All images presented here, excluding those from PM and Haygood, were scanned from microfilm reels in Wesleyan’s Olin Library. Volumes I, II, III, V, and VI of the Voice are represented.
Images from PM were scanned from issues preserved in Olin Library. The two portraits of ACP, Jr. were pulled from page 106 of Wil Haygood’s biography, listed below.
Hamilton, Charles V. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma. New York: Atheneum, 1991.
Haygood, Wil. King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
[i] Wil Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 1.
[ii] Haygood, King of the Cats, 2.
[iii] Ibid., 3.
[iv] Ibid., 4.
[v] Ibid., 5.
[vi] Ibid., 10.
[vii] Ibid., 17.
[ix] Ibid., 25.
[x] Ibid., 31.
[xi] Ibid., 36.
[xiii] Ibid., 41.
[xiv] Ibid., 48.
[xv] Ibid., 54.
[xvii] Ibid., 56.
[xix] Ibid., 76.
[xx] Ibid., 84.
[xxi] Ibid., 85.
[xxii] Wil Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 88.
[xxiii] Haygood, King of the Cats, 88.
[xxv] Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991), 119.
[xxvi] Haygood, King of the Cats, 89.
[xxvii] Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., 123.
[xxviii] Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991), 153.
[xxix] Wil Haygood, King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 147.
[xxx] Haygood, King of the Cats, 147.
[xxxii] Ibid., 147 – 148.
[xxxiii] Charles V. Hamilton, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma (New York: Atheneum, 1991), 185.
[xxxv] Haygood, King of the Cats, 90.