What Colin Powell's death and groundbreaking career meant for many Black Americans

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Throughout his career, Colin Powell was often hailed by other Black Americans as one of the nation's most influential Black leaders. He was the first Black national security advisor, first Black chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, first Black U.S. secretary of state and one of the first African Americans to be seriously considered as a presidential candidate.

Powell, 84, died Monday from complications of COVID-19, according to a statement from his family.

"He's one of the greatest Americans of this generation," said Marc Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League. "He demonstrated that a Black man could serve at those levels with absolute perfection, competency and integrity."

Secretary of State Colin Powell shakes hands with chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Bidenon, Sept. 26, 2002, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., prior to testifying on U.S. policy toward Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell shakes hands with chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Bidenon, Sept. 26, 2002, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., prior to testifying on U.S. policy toward Iraq.

Powell's death was also a painful reminder of how the coronavirus has besieged Black communities at disproportionately higher rates than white Americans. Though the rate of disproportion has narrowed in recent months, Black people still account for a higher percentage of overall COVID-19 deaths (14%) compared to their U.S. population share (12%), according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Social media sites lit up Monday with remembrances and plaudits as Black leaders and other Americans praised Powell.

In a tweet, Martin Luther King III, son of the famed civil rights leader, said Powell was a "trailblazer that broke barriers in this nation, making space for others to follow in his footsteps."

Also via Twitter, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat, said Powell was a "history-maker whose accomplishments won’t be soon forgotten" and U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and the highest-ranking Black person in Congress, said Powell's "calm and steady leadership will be missed."

Powell's career spanned generations, putting him at the front row of major U.S. historical events, from his time in President Ronald Reagan's Cold War-era cabinet meetings to serving as secretary of state during the Iraq War.

Powell, a retired four-star general and Vietnam War veteran, served in the armed forces for four decades including national security advisor for Reagan, and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under George H. W. Bush and secretary of state under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.

As secretary of state, Powell oversaw U.S. diplomacy in the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Years removed from his titles, Powell stayed relevant by retaining a fiercely independent voice in today's current hyper-partisan politics.

Powell, a Republican, broke party ranks several times by endorsing President Barack Obama, the nation's first Black president and a Democrat, in the 2008 presidential election against Republican John McCain. He also backed Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden, a Democrat, in the 2020 election against Trump.

Biden in a statement Monday called Powell a "dear friend and a patriot of unmatched honor and dignity."

"Over our many years working together – even in disagreement – Colin was always someone who gave you his best and treated you with respect," Biden said.

Powell's recent tenure as secretary of state garners a lot of attention but his time as national security advisor to Reagan from 1987 to 1989 is an equally important part of his resume, said Chris O’Sullivan, an adjunct history professor at the University of San Francisco and author of "Colin Powell: A Political Biography."

Working closely with then-Secretary of State George Shultz, Powell was instrumental in accepting reforms arising from former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and helping to bring an end to the Cold War, he said.

But the path he trailblazed as an African American in the rafters of political power is perhaps his most significant legacy, Sullivan said.

"Those are very important pioneering benchmarks," he said. "He was breaking a lot of glass ceilings."

President Barack Obama talks with reporters after his meeting with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, left, on the importance of ratifying the New START Treaty, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010, in the Oval Office at the White in Washington.
President Barack Obama talks with reporters after his meeting with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, left, on the importance of ratifying the New START Treaty, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010, in the Oval Office at the White in Washington.

Morial said he first met Powell in New Orleans in 1995, when the former general came to speak at a gathering of mostly-white business leaders. Morial was mayor of New Orleans at the time.

Powell spoke for 45 minutes then told the room he had one more thing to add -- and launched into a passionate defense of affirmative action and racial justice, arguing that the United States would have been more successful in the Vietnam conflict had there been more minority generals, Morial said.

"It was a powerful moment," he remembered. "It was both philosophical and pragmatic."

Morial maintained a friendship with Powell over the years. In 2009, the National Urban League honored Powell with its Humanitarian Award at the Equal Opportunity Dinner for a career speckled with accomplishments.

"He ascended to the highest levels of public service," Morial said. "Many are great diplomats and many are great soldiers and generals. Few have done both."

Former Congressman William Hurd, Republican of Texas, had just started his career at the CIA when Powell was secretary of state. He remembered the elder statesman's attention to detail, like bringing email service to every embassy, along with his integrity and professionalism.

For Hurd, who is Black, it was the rare opportunity to admire a Black official at the highest levels of power. Hurd later served in Congress, representing Texas' 23rd district from 2014 to 2021. Powell's words -- "Always look through the windshield, not the rearview mirror" or "Don't let your ego be attached to your job" -- were always echoing in his head, Hurd said.

"He was the embodiment of the American dream," he said. "He’s a Black man who was a trailblazer."

Born in the United States to Jamaican parents, Powell spoke with pride about his heritage. He called his parents' homeland the source of his "value system."

“I loved my upbringing,” Powell said in a 2012 interview with C-SPAN. “All of us who are immigrants — or not immigrants — have a special feeling for the family we are a part of and the place that we came from or they came from.”

Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to newsmen in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 14, 1990, after visiting American troops who are deployed in the country.
Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks to newsmen in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 14, 1990, after visiting American troops who are deployed in the country.

Powell was known to at times point out racial divisions throughout American society, providing a platform for the concerns of many Black Americans. In a 2015 interview, he talked about joining the Army after segregation in the military was banned, but still having to confront segregation in the Jim Crow South.

"It was still a situation where I could go to Fort Benning, Georgia, to get my infantry and paratroop and ranger training, but if I went outside of Fort Benning, Georgia, to Columbus, Georgia, it would still segregated. I couldn’t get a hamburger. And it was another few years before that ended,” Powell told "CBS This Morning." “So we’ve come an extremely long way over the last half-century of my public life, but there’s a way to go yet. We shouldn’t think it’s over. We know it’s not over. We see the problems.”

In 1989, when asked what it was like to be a Black man serving in the Reagan administration, he told a reporter for The Washington Post, "To the extent that Black people look at that picture of power and they gain some inspiration from seeing a Black man at the table, I'm very happy about that."

Then he pivoted to one of his favorite subjects: "Let's talk foreign policy."

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colin Powell's death came after groundbreaking career for Black leader

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