News & Politics

Adam Clayton Powell, 1908-1972


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April 13, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 15

‘Fire in his mouth, trumpets in his throat’
By Dalton James

He had kept the faith. And now, in the refuge of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Adam Clayton Powell was nestled amid a flower garden of wreaths and a forest of ‘fros and a syndicate of nurse’s white dresses and beautiful black suits with lapels that displayed liberation flags in the naked tv lights and the cold feel of the hawk in the winter garments.

The dignitaries and politicians streamed past the huge coffin on their way to reserved seats as lenses of varied description bore down on them and a pin-striped man with a white carnation tattoed to his chest remembering a fallen warrior on the battleground of justice did the breakdown and wept openly.

Long before 2 o’clock the house of sinners went SRO. And Yvette and Hazel and Darlene and Skippy and everybody else’s eyes leaned on the gadfly, as Dr. Ray would later remember him, until 2.03 when Powell’s journey to the other shore had officially begun. Rangel sat with Chisholm and Chisholm sat with Sutton and Abzug sat in the umbrage of her black lid. The Mayor sat in the front row with his face tanned from the Florida sun and bleached by the Wisconsin cold.

The house microphone was silent when the chairman opened the service, causing some of Powell’s voters to shout “We can’t hear,” and the two choirs to sing loudly a litany for the man who cut a record and wrote a book after decades of fighting for the dignity of black people and his inevitable political demise.

Outside the church another litany was sung. A litany for the living that emanated from the cries of the arctic wind in the junk-strewn streets, from the lips of the pencil-slim woman addict as she half-rapped through slit-level cellophane eyes to a portly brother on a Lenox Avenue stoop, from the cat selling a pair of hot open toe lady shoes to apathetic passers-by on the cold sidewalk, from the chorus of laughter and the patois sound of soul talk in the legion of neighborhood bars, from the familiar sound of Inner City patrol cars, from the very ambiance of Harlem in heat.

Back in Abyssinia two-minute tributes were ripped off by the men who knew Powell best. The women in his life didn’t say anything, but Darlene Expose, the one at his death, did tell me last Friday when I cross-examined her in a Miami funeral home that “he was a beautiful man, a very gentle man, so many things I can’t find words to describe him.”

Reverend Gardner Taylor, an articulate preacher in the genre of MLK, supplied the missing words in his tribute of respect. “When Adam Clayton Powell was born, nature played a trick on America. The oppressors’ love belonged exclusively to him. Nature gave him a nimble mind which could anticipate questions before they were asked. Nature put fire in his mouth and trumpets in his throat and gave him the bliss of beautiful phrases. Nothing was really wrong with Adam Clayton Powell except America. Now we mourn a warrior home from the war, a sailor home from the sea. Good night sweet prince, May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

At the end a nonagenarian in the audience cried out in sorrow and the rest applauded with “Amen, amen” from the back of their throats. Little fireflies of Right On! Right On! shone in the horseshoe arena of righteous rhetoric, and this caused gloved ushers to shhh the congregation back to the moment of respect.

Dr. Roger Shinn, a white professor from the Union Theological Seminary, also moved the mourners to applause when he told them that ACP met men of power not as suppliant but as a man of power. And Dr. Samuel Proctor reminded people in his eulogy that ACP sat on a committee that hadn’t had any social legislation come through in “100 years, but he blasted all of that,.”

As the service ended with the main choir chanting something from Brahms’s music, many of Powell’s disciples wept loudly in maxi-discomfort. They looked like many faces in the void, like Dante readers who believed in his version of Hell. They cried walking out. They walked out and cried. And the people inside with less lachrymal intent, restrained by the seatbelts of wooden police horses, pointed to the exiting mourners and picked out Yvette and Skippy and Shirley Chisholm, and some dipped under the barriers to mob Lindsay.

They shoved Powell slowly into the black and gray hearse while the onlookers whispered about the pomp and circumstance of it all. The vehicle left, taking the “general” on another leg of his journey to the other side. The crowd gazed at its departure and then trained its eyes on a passing gay liberationist wearing a long, brown fur coat that covered his green-suited body, and a white turban with red plumes nailed on the forehead. he poked the sidewalk with a multi-hued crooked stick and stopped long enough to half-ask a young girl, “Wasn’t that a beautiful funeral, sister?”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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