Monday, January 23, 2006

A Correction but Not a Retraction. When the House was Really a Plantation

That will teach me to write off the top of my head about a story I lived through but didn’t research after passage of 45 years to check the facts! A Mr. Fake Name wrote the other day commenting on my post concerning Adam Clayton Powell. I wrote that the African American Powell was unhorsed by the Democratic rulers of the House plantation when Sam Rayburn was Speaker. Not so: it was John McCormack of Massachusetts. The identity of the Speaker was a technical error but the expulsion was done by the Democratic plantation was the same: dominated by southern committee chairmen. I apologize for being sloppy. But Mr.Fake Name is not 100 percent right, either. In fact, if I may say so, I was nearer to being right than he was with his well-deserved acerbic correction of me, for which I thank him.

Long a bone in the white Democratic leadership’s throat, Powell had collected sufficient enemies at a time when blacks didn’t count for much in the Democratic hierarchy and after a number of public relations gaffes including closet support of some Eisenhower measures in the `50s, including covert support of Eisenhower himself in 1956. If Powell got involved in a lawsuit of a woman who claimed he had wrongly accused her of collecting police graft (as I’m sure he did), it did not strike a well-respected history of the Congress to be recorded as a reason for his being unhorsed. Assuredly, as Mr. Fake Name accurately reports, Powell refused to pay the damages. But to suppose that he was unhorsed because of the law-suit is to imagine that no white chairman had ever been caught before in a suit without surrendering his post in Congress.

“The American Heritage History of the Congress of the United States” edited by Stephen W. Sears [American Heritage: 1975] reported “Powell, a tall, ruggedly handsome man, had been in and out of the headlines with tax and personal problems but members charged him particularly with long absences, use of public funds for personal travel and high-handed leadership of his committee. After an inquiry, the House, on March 1, 1967 voted to declare Powell’s seat vacant. Though his constituency immediately reelected him, Powell made no effort to reclaim his seat but took his case to court. The next year he was again reelected and when the Ninety-First Congress met early in 1969 he was permitted to take his seat but fined $25,000 and stripped of his seniority. In June of the same year, the Supreme Court ruled that he had been improperly excluded from the House in 1967. Powell served the rest of his term but was defeated in a primary in 1970.

The fact that Powell was charged with long absences was blatantly discriminatory against Powell as recorded by many journalists of the day including Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson as well as for those of us who recalled Howard (Judge) Smith leaving the chairmanship of the Rules committee ostensibly to look after his apple orchard in Virginia, precisely when civil rights legislation was languishing before Rules. Or when Armed Services chairman L. Mendel Rivers of South Carolina was too drunk to preside (and he with a loaded revolver he carried with him at all times!). Or when Teddy Green of Rhode Island, who at 91 was chairman of Foreign Relations, would nod off and turn off his hearing aid at some sessions so as not to be disturbed. The point is that those were the days when the Congress, particularly the House was truly a plantation. Thus I stand contrite but unbowed.

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