Colin Powell: Remembering the man and his love for America
When former Secretary of State Colin Powell died Monday at age 84, he became the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. His family issued a statement saying Powell, who was fully vaccinated, died from complications of the virus.
I had the privilege to sit down with Powell on several occasions, but one time — shortly before President George W. Bush left office in 2008 — stands out to me. In that interview, Powell, who served in the Bush administration from January 2001 to January 2005, spoke candidly about his humble upbringing and the people and events that shaped him into the man he became.
Powell grew up in the streets of Harlem, N.Y., grounded by family and tradition. He was blessed with a strong foundation and spirit of vision from his parents, immigrants from Jamaica. This touched me deeply, learning about it, because a firm root is a key to any child’s success. Powell talked about the expectations put upon him by his parents, who stressed the importance of education and staying focused on goals. To him, dropping out of school was “unheard of.”
He learned the value of hard work and, perhaps more than anything, a genuine appreciation for family and love. It’s a poignant message for many of today’s youths.
Powell left New York after joining the ROTC in college, and took up a career in the military full time following graduation — the start of 35 years of service. From his perspective, a focus of much of Powell’s career was that of his skin color, coming into the service during the civil rights movement. He remarked that in the beginning, he was “looked at as a Black lieutenant.” Since the Army had only recently desegregated before his service, Powell dealt with overt and subliminal racism from both his peers and commanders.
Powell never let this get in his way. As he said to me, it is true that, at the time, the military was the only profession in which a Black man could move up the ranks without his skin color being a significant factor. In the military, more than anywhere else, valor and merit supersede all. Relatedly, Powell said that he “never let [his] color or racism be a problem to [him].” He pointed out that letting your color or identity define or diminish you is the end of your prospects. If you cannot be comfortable with who you are, then why should anyone else?
Powell indeed moved up in the military, a four-star general who ultimately reached the military’s highest point when Bush appointed him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He served in this capacity for four years; he earlier had served as national security adviser under President Reagan. Despite these incredible highs, Powell never let his race define him. Rather than allowing people to view him as the “best Black” to serve in any role, Powell strived to become the “best in that role,” irrespective of race. He did this by forgoing the political aspects of work and focusing on his duty to serve his country.
Powell became a member of the Republican Party while serving under Reagan, yet he was never a staunch Republican on all issues; he was a moderate on many issues. He has said he voted for Democrats, as well, over the years, and he become disillusioned with the Republican Party after the Jan. 6 Capitol breach. Yet, during our interview, he resoundingly denounced any attempts to chastise Black people who join the GOP, saying that “Blacks would be best served if they are in all political parties in America.” There is much truth to this statement, especially because some racists today claim that any Black person who is not a Democrat is a traitor to his or her race. If Powell did anything for Black people, he showed that this is far from the truth.
As Secretary of State, Powell was not devoid of controversy. He showed not just the United States but the entire world that the color of one’s skin is not a prerequisite for how far one may go. As the highest-ranking Black person in the country’s history, he was fourth in line for presidential succession during those years. In our discussion, Powell defended his record as secretary — mainly when it came to forming a coalition of nations to fight the Taliban after 9/11. He was clear about the administration’s success in freeing “55 million people … who were not free before.” In addition, Powell acknowledged the deficits of the U.S. efforts in Iraq, which ultimately cost him his job as secretary. Nevertheless, Powell was proud to serve his nation.
Son, soldier, statesman — it is no doubt that Powell had a storied career. He was involved with many significant events that have shaped our country to this day. As they say, hindsight is 20/20, but it was evident from my discussions with Powell that his motivation always was unwavering love and devotion for America. He served the country honorably, with grace and with an eye toward the future.
To this day, I find that his words carry weight and relevance. We should all offer prayers to his family and honor the man who was Colin Powell.
Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is the owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. He is the author of “Reawakening Virtues.”