• U.S.

The Congress: Outlaw in the House

3 minute read

It was getting to the point where Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell had to study a timetable before he could tell when it was safe for him to set foot in New York. Last week a state court obligingly simplified matters for him.

Held in civil contempt for refusing to pay a $164,000 libel judgment, Powell for months has been subject to arrest and a year’s imprisonment if he entered the state. He was safe on Sundays, though, because the case did not involve criminal contempt, and his congressional immunity protected him whenever the House was in session. But Powell was recently held in criminal contempt as well as civil contempt, and State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Markewich last week issued an order for his arrest on “any day”—including Sundays and days when Congress is meeting. The chairman of the powerful House Education and Labor Committee was an outlaw in his own state.

That was too much for at least one of Adam’s House colleagues. Unless Powell purges himself of contempt by the time Congress convenes in January, California Democrat Lionel van Deerlin said, he would invoke a House rule that allows any member to challenge the seating of another. “No tradition of Congress,” he said, “would be hallowed enough to justify seating him.”

No Pillow. Nevertheless, the tradition-minded House may prove reluctant to refuse Powell his seat. Only some half a dozen members or members-elect have been excluded since the Civil War (other than those kept out because of contested elections), and some have been allowed to retain their seats even while in jail. Many Congressmen believe that keeping a member out really punishes his constituents by depriving them of a voice, and Powell’s velvety, bourbon-cured baritone is clearly the voice that pleases Harlem’s voters. In November, though aware of his defiance of the courts, they gave him a twelfth term with 74% of the vote. To them, “Old Adam,” preacher, politician and perennial bon vivant, is a supremely satisfying symbol—a Negro who has managed to outplay Whitey at his own game. Still, Powell is so widely detested in the House that precedent may provide him with no pillow.

All told, it was not a very happy birthday for Powell, who turned 58 last week while vacationing with his House assistant, comely Corrine Huff, 25, at his Bimini retreat in the Bahamas. After nearly running down Lynn Pelham, a contract photographer for LIFE, with the old Washington taxicab he uses for buzzing around the island, Powell brandished a shotgun, snarled, “I’ll kill you if you set foot on my property.” With his telephoto lens, Pelham then snapped a picture of Powell stalking angrily into his house.

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