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Chapter XII from the autobiography of Herb Jeffries:

emoir:
by Herb Jeffries with Raymond Strait


Author Raymond Strait and Herb Jeffries

Herb Jeffries was, in the tradition of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, a Hollywood created, silver screen, singing cowboy hero. He starred in five films in the late 1930's, but Jeffries was a different type of cowpoke. He was "The Bronze Buckaroo."


"In those days, my driving force was being a hero to children who didn't have any heroes to identify with," Jeffries says....But Herb Jeffries, like millions of other children of color, never saw any cowboys that looked like him. Jeffries made it his personal mission to change that after he saw a Jed Buell film called "The Terror in Tiny Town," made with a cast of little people. "I thought if Buell would produce a movie with "Little People," then maybe he would make an all-Black picture," Jeffries said.

Jeffries trekked to Buell's Gower Gulch office and persuaded him to make just such a motion picture, which was distributed, by a Dallas company, to mostly segregated black theaters in the South. With the success of that first film ("Harlem On The Prairie"), several more were soon to follow.

In 1939, Jeffries hung up his spurs to sing and tour with Duke Ellington's Orchestra. He later served in WWII and then went on to live for a decade in France, where he ran a Jazz supper club. His nightly list of patrons included the likes of Orson Welles, Ali Khan and King Farouk of Egypt. His subsequent recordings of "Flamingo" have sold over 14-million copies... and still counting.

"The Duke and I", Herb's most recent CD album, constitutes a reunion of Herb Jeffries and the timeless music of the great Duke Ellington on the 100th birthday year of the world famous composer and band leader.

The above information was taken from Herb Jeffries' web site at: www.herbjeffries.com/


CHAPTER XII

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. served in the United States House of Representatives as a Democrat   from the Harlem district of Upper Manhattan Island from January 3, 1945, to February 28, 1967.   He became one of the most powerful Negro   men in the United States, paving   the way for Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and all the other civil rights leaders who followed in his footsteps.   So dedicated was he to societal changes as regarded race and ethnicity, he became universally known as Mr. Civil Rights.   He once bragged that, "I'm the first bad Negro they've had in Congress."   In pursuit of his goals, he became the most detested Congressman before or since his tenure. His political enemies were legion in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Adam represented a different kind of Black man.   An educated man with polish and political savvy, he graduated from   white Ivy League Colgate University in upstate New York and almost immediately abandoned a career as a surgeon.   He opted for the pulpit where he soon learned the value of political power through numbers.  

I met Adam many, many years ago as I came up through the ranks, scrambling around for recognition. On a visit to Harlem, I decided to attend   The First Abyssinian Baptist Church where he held forth as the pastor and spiritual leader of several thousand members.   His father helped found that church, and Adam put a lot of effort into maintaining it.   Reverend Powell and his mother were both very Caucasian looking.   I never knew or inquired into their heritage, but it is very well documented in books, some of which were written by Adam himself. For a man of color, he had a very light complexion.

 

Adam and I looked a lot alike, and people have often told me that we could have been brothers. Certainly we were spiritually.   I liked Adam and was impressed with his goals.   He tried to represent his race, not only in his local parish, but around the world.   As a minister he exuded a dynamic personality.  

The American Negro is and always has been a spiritual race of people.   Colored children are taught from the cradle into their maturity that God sits on his throne, that Jesus Christ is his son and their savior.   When white protestant ministers preach to empty pews, colored pastors fill theirs to the rafters.   Their religion dictates how they live and even how they vote.   Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. knew this.

After he replaced his father 's in the pulpit, he shepherded the largest colored congregation of any church in the world.    Politically, he had the vote in his church to wield enormous political power in Harlem.   He took an avid interest in the advancement of equal rights, equal liberty and equal justice.

When I appeared at a club in New York, Adam always made it a point to catch my performances , and we'd spend time together back stage and elsewhere discussing world affairs and the plight of the Negro in America.   Both he and his wife, Hazel Scott , a very popular pianist, singer and recording artist, became my close

friends.   Hazel , also played an important role in Adam's political life.

They often invited me to their home in White Plains, a suburban community upstate a few miles from Manhattan.   Our discussions about world situations and how different races and different ethnic groups were treated were classic.   I truly wish we had recorded them.   We discussed the opportunities open to peoples from around the world who came to our wonderful land of liberty.   In those days America was all about the Cold War and refuges   escaping oppression from the dictators of communism as they reached out to the United States and freedom.

When I operated   my night club in Paris, Adam made numerous trips to visit me and sometimes enlisted me to assist him in some of his congregational investigations.   A lot of discrimination went on in the American Armed Forces,   even after President Truman issued an executive order to integrate them which, became a political hot potato for him and led to a three-way split in the Democratic party during the 1948 Presidential elections.

Adam intended to expose the discrimination within the Armed Services and wanted me to help him.   Doing shows in military hospitals, I had a great opportunity to observe racial tensions   first hand. The administrators were always aware when Adam would be coming, so they covered everything up - all goody-two-shoes for his benefit.   They didn't have to cover up anything for me because I was just another entertainer who didn't know anything about hospital discrimination.   I was there to sing and put on a show.   Nothing else.  

At this writing a big investigation is underway regarding the unacceptable living conditions and treatment of former servicemen in our veterans' hospitals, beginning with an exclusive Washington Post expose of conditions at Walter Reed Veteran's Hospital in the nation's capitol.   Adam Clayton Powell instigated the post-World War II investigations into conditions at our European Military Hospitals.

Adam's phones were tapped by the FBI and other government organizations. He'd been accused of every possible offense short of murder.   White politicians, especially Southern white politicians did not like black men with political power.   When Adam attacked racial bias , he went all out.   Everybody knew what was going on , but evidence disappeared and witnesses suddenly were struck deaf, dumb and blind.   Adam endured personal discrimination in the Congressional Commissary.   Certain congressmen would not eat in the commissary when Adam happened to be present. Heretofore blacks were not served in the commissary.   Adam, a duly elected representative from his district, insisted that he be served--and he came out victorious over those who would shun him.

He once told me about his first term in Congress during orientation for first-termers.   In those days the line of succession went from President to Vice-president to Speaker of the House.   The Speaker at that time was Sam Rayburn from Texas.   A real southern bigot.   Speaker Rayburn, indoctrinating the new incoming congressmen, got up on the floor of the House and said, "Now you young congressmen who are here for the first time.   I am an old veteran here , and I wish to give you some very important information.   I would advise you newcomers to be seen and not heard.   I feel that's good advice for you.   And," he directed his further commentary to Adam, "you, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, I know all about you.   I know you came to Washington with a bomb in each hand , and I'm telling you, young sir, I would advise you not to throw them.   Not to throw them."

 

Adam rose from his seat and said, "Sir, I respect your position very much and every word you say is a word of wisdom, sir, and I'm going to listen to some of your advice.   But it is true, sir, I have a bomb in each hand , and I'm gong to throw them at the first opportunity I get."

That statement is in the Congressional Record.   That's the opposition Adam had when he went to Congress.   The third most powerful man in America lined up against him from the get go.

So, in 1954 when I went to Universal Studios to work with James Drury on a Western TV Series, we had one episode called The Stopover . I played the leading heavy role in the story.   I had a little tear-drop van for a dressing room , which had no air-conditioning .   The hot weather made it even more uncomfortable.

Drury called me and said, "Herb, we have some dialog together , and I would like to discuss it with you.   I can either come over to your dressing room or you can come over to mine."

I said, "Jim, I'm right in the middle of getting my costumes together."

  "I'll be right over."

When he saw my hot and   cramped quarters, he became infuriated.   "What on earth are you doing in this thing?   Grab your clothes and bring them over to my dressing room."

His dressing room turned out to be a large RV with a bar and totally luxurious. As soon as we arrived, he got on the phone and called up the executive offices in the Universal Tower.   I don't know who he spoke to, but I heard what he said.   "Do you know who this man is?   This man is one of the finest recording artists in the United States of America.   You put him in some kind of closet like that?   I want another dressing room brought down here, exactly like mine, for him."

I felt somewhat uncomfortable because I hadn't intended to instigate such a confrontation between Jim and whomever he spoke with.   After he hung up, I said, "Jim, don't make a fuss because of me.   It's my first time here , and I don't want them to think I'm some kind of trouble-maker because they'll never use me again."

"Don't worry about it.   It's what I want and what I demand."

  I suddenly saw the power of a popular actor in a popular television series. We became very friendly during the filming.   We had lunch together several times , and we   discovered our philosophies were very similar.   Finally, one day after we'd wrapped , he said, "Come with me.   I want you to meet the great lady.   She's shooting on another lot."

I asked, "Who is that?"

"Joan Crawford."

"Oh, my God.   I would love to meet Joan Crawford."   Not only was she a great actress and major motion picture star, she also happened to be an important woman at Pepsi-cola where she owned a big hung of Pepsi stock and was married to the CEO.

Drury and I arrived on the set where the director had set up to shoot a scene for Johnny Guitar , which involved a flaming barn out of which Miss Crawford would be running for her life.   The script called for the barn to explode into total flames. This would be a one - take shot, so everything had to be perfect.

Jim and I sat on the sidelines and watched the director going over the scene with Miss Crawford.   Suddenly he shouted action and boom the fire went on , and she came running out of the barn, screaming.   The whole thing held me spellbound.   I'd never seen such an action shot before.   Then the director shouted , " Cut and print!   That's a wrap."

Actors and crewmen scattered   to close down the set for the day.

This great actress , who had been so emotional in her scene, stood alone - still shaking.   Nobody had gone to her assistance.   Jim's attention was focused on someone else, and   I just instinctively ran out to her.   Everything seemed so emotional I thought maybe

she might be having a nervous breakdown.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

She put her head against my shoulder, not even knowing who I might be.   "Thank you.   Thank you.   I'll be okay.   I'll be okay.   I'll be okay."

Finally, she started to settle down and looked up at me.   "Just who is my benefactor?"   She smiled slightly.   Nobody had ever said anything like that to me in my life.   It startled me for a second. I said, "My name is Herb Jeffries , and I came over with Jim Drury so I could meet you.   I'm glad I could be of some help."

I returned her smile with a silly grin, considering the situation.

She quickly came to full life.   "Oh, Herb Jeffries.   I saw you at the Mocambo. You're a singer."

"That's me."

She said, "I want to thank you so much.   You were more helpful than you know."

She later got my address from Jim and wrote me the most precious letter I'd ever received which got lost during one of my several divorces.


Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar

Anyway, the reason I brought all of this up is because while we were shooting The Virginian episode, a man by the name of Stevenson, a director/producer, saw some of my rushes.   He came on the set and asked me if I would do a segment of his series called The Black Answer .   The character he wanted me to play happened to be an Adam Clayton Powell type .

I said, "I happen to know Adam very well , and I know a lot of his characteristics."

So I did that episode at Universal.   When we finished shooting, Jim saw it and asked if I would like to do the life of Adam Clayton Powell in a movie.  

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