Adam Clayton Powell and the Politics of Race

by Neil Hickey and Ed Edwin
Fleet, 298 pp., $6.50

Adam Clayton Powell
Adam Clayton Powell; drawing by David Levine

Abraham Beame was Harlem’s choice as Democratic nominee for Mayor in the September 14 primary. Everything about Harlem seems in need of translation: translated, this event, whatever its consequences for the rest of New York, means for Harlem that Adam Clayton Powell is again the master of its politics. These books define the value of the property.

Kenneth Clark’s Park Ghetto looks very much like one of those moments when a branch of social inquiry begins to step towards becoming a science. What we feel here is the impact, less of a classic than of the rare and special thing which makes some future classic possible. Dr. Clark suggests that we are in the presence of a precursor of the time when our children can study social psychology in some place besides novels. The book was written in isolation; the feelings it expresses are as private as the novelist’s. We are reminded by the shape of Clark’s work, more than by anything he says, of the invocation with which Lord Clarendon, despairing of his society and his personal fortunes alike, started his history of the rebellion against Charles I. “That posterity may not be deceived…” was the aspiration with which Clarendon opened. But he must at once have understood that posterity was much too likely to be deceived; still he went on in stately progress, more, one thinks, from pride than faith, through other implausible hopes for justice, and then settled for the only claim he had, the grand assertion of prerogative upon which the whole dignity of history has stood ever since: “It will not be unuseful, at least to the curiosity if not the conscience of men, to present to the world a full and clear narration…”

Dark Ghetto began as an appeal to conscience, and, in formal argument, its author clings heroically to that structure even after the hope on which it was based had disappeared. Just the same, he knew well enough how much he has been cheated of that hope. In 1961, Clark took command of Harlem youth Unlimited, an effort to change the downward direction of life in Harlem. He began with a $230,000 grant from the federal government; since the appeal to conscience, when it is realistic these days, is an appeal for public funds, he used his grant to send young Harlem residents into the streets for a study of their own conditions and for some divination of a remedy. The result was Youth in the Ghetto, a 613-page report whose special purpose was to persuade government to give HARYOU $118 million for a program of salvation.

Dark Ghetto is a summary of the findings of that report; in formal argument therefore it remains an appeal to conscience. But it is widened immeasurably by the personal sense that no useful public conscience is possible until men are at least curious about other…

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