FEBRUARY 2, 1955
Less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated public schools, U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. rose on the House floor.
A Baptist preacher in Harlem, he was one of only three Black Americans in Congress. Since getting elected to Congress a decade earlier, he had introduced many civil rights bills.
None had passed.
After introducing legislation to desegregate the armed forces, then-President Harry Truman wound up doing it through an executive order. As Powell stepped to the microphone, he chastised Congress for failing to make a difference.
He and others had introduced civil rights bills, “pleading, praying that you good ladies and gentlemen would give to this body the glory of dynamic leadership that it should have, but you have failed, and history has recorded it,” he said. “This is an hour for boldness. This is an hour when a world waits breathlessly, expectantly, almost hungrily for this Congress, the 84th Congress, through legislation to give some semblance of democracy in action. … We are derelict in our duty if we continue to plow looking backward.”
He noted that when a House committee was considering legislation to end segregation in interstate travel, Lt. Thomas Williams was arrested and jailed, even though the Supreme Court had told bus carriers to end such segregation.
“About two weeks ago, while flying a jet plane, he was killed serving his country before he had a chance to see democracy come to pass,” Powell said.
Although his push for legislation failed, his words helped inspire change. The civil rights rider he introduced eventually became part of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped change America.