Clayton Powell, 93, blazed trails for Black Americans

Clayton Powell was an early advocate in the civil rights movement in Atlanta and in the field of optometry.
Clayton Powell was an early advocate in the civil rights movement in Atlanta and in the field of optometry.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

As a child, he picked Alabama cotton for a penny a pound and met segregation at every turn. But when Dr. Cleo “Clayton” Powell Sr. was 15, he got a glimpse that changed history.

“It was mesmerizing for him to see a Black town where Black people were flourishing,” said his wife Deborah Powell, about the day Clayton Powell’s uncle took him to the Atlanta area now known as the Sweet Auburn Historic District. “All those Black-owned businesses — beauty shops, doctors' offices, movie theaters — he’d never seen anything like it in his life.”

Ignited by newfound potential, Clayton Powell grew into a visionary and activist, working with late civil rights leaders U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and state Sen. Leroy R. Johnson to demolish strongholds of racism. He was also a forerunner for minorities in the field of optometry, co-founding the National Optometric Association (NOA) and opening doors for thousands of minority students and professionals.

Clayton Powell, 93, died Oct. 23, after a brief illness, at Emory University Hospital Midtown. A private memorial service was held at Zion Hill Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Born in Dothan, Alabama, in 1927, Clayton Powell was raised by his mother, who was a hairstylist and domestic cook, and his maternal grandparents. After the eye-opening experience on Auburn Avenue, he left his one-room schoolhouse in Dothan to move to his uncle’s home in Atlanta and attend Booker T. Washington High School, at the time Atlanta’s only high school for Blacks.

The school, equipped with science labs, overwhelmed him. “When he saw that school, it blew his mind,” said Deborah Powell.

Clayton Powell quickly emerged there as a leader. He excelled in academics and relocated the school’s 1943 prom to what had been a whites-only venue, according to Don Winbush, who co-authored the 2019 book, “C. Clayton Powell and the Real Atlanta: A Memoir and a Tribute to Those Who Made It Happen.”

Awarded a scholarship to Morehouse College, Clayton Powell was classmates with Martin Luther King Jr. After graduating in 1949, he decided to become an optometrist, a field virtually devoid of minorities. He entered the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago as the only Black student in his class, according to the NOA.

Returning to Atlanta to begin his practice in 1953, Clayton Powell became the first Black doctor of optometry to join the Georgia Optometric Association, to head the Atlanta Southside Comprehensive Health Center, and the first appointed to the National Eye Institute, according to the NOA.

Discouraged that Black optometrists could not vote or be on committees in national optometry associations, Clayton Powell and colleague John Howlette founded the NOA in 1969 to be the voice of minority optometrists. Both men were inducted into the National Optometry Hall of Fame in 2001. Clayton Powell personally mentored hundreds of students and practitioners, Deborah Powell said. Since its creation, the NOA has funded nearly $25 million in scholarships for minority students pursuing optometry, its website states.

“Our profession has lost an icon and legend,” NOA President Sherrol A. Reynolds wrote in a statement. “The NOA has strengthened our profession, created new of opportunities and promoted minority ocular health in underserved communities. Dr. Powell’s dedication to our profession is unparalleled and he will be deeply missed, but his legacy will continue forever.”

Clayton Powell did not wait to become active in politics and social issues. He was 27 when elected vice-president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP. Alongside future Justice Thurgood Marshall, he filed cases to desegregate Atlanta public schools. He was a charter member, chairman, and executive director of the Development Authority of Fulton County, where he is credited for helping bring $3 billion of development and more than 350,000 jobs to the county.

“Clayton Powell was always one to elevate others and move things forward,” Winbush said. “He stood for good things and he made good things happen.”

Clayton Powell was preceded in death by his his first wife, the Fulton County judge Romae Turner Powell. Survivors include his wife Deborah Powell of Atlanta; son C. Clayton Powell Jr. of Sandy Springs, Ga.; daughter Rometta E. Powell of Atlanta; step-daughter Camille G. Stephens of College Park, Ga.; and four grandchildren.

Memorials may be made to the National Optometric Association or Morehouse College.

ExploreOnline guestbook for Clayton Powell

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