Colin Luther Powell, the first African American to serve as U.S. Secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, succumbed on October 18, and even though he is physically gone, his achievements leave an indelible mark on the nation’s history.
Powell passed away following COVID-19 complications and multiple myeloma or cancer of the plasma blood cells, which greatly weakened his immune system despite being fully vaccinated. Also, his advanced age, which was 84-years-old, was an extenuating factor.
However, the retired four-star general blazed an unmatched path as a soldier and a statesman and his death prompted an outpouring of condolences from presidents, veterans, activists and business leaders. Politicians weighed in on his legacy as well since Powell was known for his ability to work successfully with Democrats and Republicans.
He served as national security advisor under President Ronald Reagan, appointed to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George H.W. Bush and continued for the beginning of President Bill Clinton’s administration. Congress unanimously confirmed Powell as secretary of state in President George W. Bush’s cabinet where he served until 2004. When then-Senator Obama entered the 2008 Democratic presidential race, Powell famously gave his endorsement although he was a Republican.
Photo Gallery: Remembering Colin Powell
“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity,” said President Joe Biden.
“Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else—in uniform and out—and it earned him the universal respect of the American people. Having repeatedly broken racial barriers, blazing a trail for others to follow in federal government service, Colin was committed throughout his life to investing in the next generation of leadership.”
Former President Obama stated, “General Colin Powell understood what was best in this country, and tried to bring his own life, career, and public statements in line with that ideal. Michelle and I will always look to him as an example of what America — and Americans — can and should be.”
Former President Bush called Powell “a great public servant” and former President Jimmy Carter said Powell’s “integrity will be an inspiration for generations to come.” Sharing similar reflections, Vice President Kamala Harris said, “Because of what he was able to accomplish, it really did elevate our nation in so many ways.” Congresswoman Barbara Lee added, “General Powell served this country with decency, integrity, and showed respect to everyone he encountered. May he rest in eternal peace and power.”
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell was proud to be Black and worked tirelessly on behalf of African Americans and other marginalized groups. During an appearance on “Face The Nation” in July 2020, he indicated support for the Black Lives Matter movement while speaking to host Margaret Brennan about the legacy of late civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis.
“There is a need for more John Lewis’s, not just one, but many. We’ve got a lot of work to do. And it’s not just a matter of how do we get Black Lives Matter or all lives matter. It’s a matter of teaching young people. It’s a matter of getting young people educated. Most of my life now is spent on education of young people and helping out my fellow citizens who are on the lower economic scale.,” insisted Powell, who advocated on behalf of people of color throughout his career.
While in the military, he often sought out Black officers and soldiers to offer words of encouragement. Remembering Powell’s impact, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the first African American in the position, said, “The world lost one of its greatest leaders we have ever witnessed.”
Retired Army Major Gen. Dana Pittard, another Black officer, said to KTLA Morning News on October 18, “When I think of him, I think of him as I did as a young captain in the army. I first met him in 1987. He was very special. He could relate and connect with literally anyone – from the youngest private all the way to presidents.”
Pittard served under Powell overseas and recalled, “I watched him in Germany relate to the German people as well as to the men and women who served under his command. Gen. Colin Powell was a trailblazer and what a difference that made for young officers like myself who said, ‘Maybe I can do that.’ He influenced multiple generations of soldiers.”
The Long Beach Unified School District opened the Colin Powell Academy for Success in 1999, which Powell said was the most “meaningful and treasured honor” he had ever received. A humble man, he came to the dedication of the facility and declined the district’s offer to rent a limousine to ferry him to the ceremony.
In an interview with KABC News, Carl Cohn, then-LBUSD superintendent, recalled, “He said, ‘No, I don’t need a limousine. What kind of car does the superintendent drive?” After being told that the vehicle was a Ford Taurus, Powell asked, “Is he a safe driver?” Hearing an affirmative answer, Powell said, “Have the superintendent pick me up in his car and drive me to the school.”
Cohn said Powell told the students to have pride in themselves, have integrity, to lead and to always do the right thing. “I’ll never forget how focused he was on the students there, the difficult circumstances of their background and talking to them about how important education was in terms of making a better life for themselves,” said the superintendent.
A native of New York, Powell was born on April 5, 1937 in Harlem. Raised in the South Bronx, he graduated from Morris High School in 1954 and enrolled in City College of New York, where he entered the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). In 1958, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He went on to amass a memorable military career, serving two tours in Vietnam, one tour in Korea and receiving multiple promotions.
Powell also earned a MBA from George Washington University in 1972 and attended the National War College followed by promotions to brigadier general, major general, and senior military aide to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger before his assignment under President Reagan. After working in several presidential administrations, Powell retired and joined his wife, Alma, in working on their nonprofit foundation, America’s Promise Alliance, which focused on developing resources to assist children and youth from underserved communities in being successful in life.
Powell was also the author of a number of books. His 2012 memoir, “It Worked For Me,” is often cited for revealing insight on the values that guided his life and career. The book contains 13 principles that Powell recommended to people aspiring to leadership roles.
Those “rules to live by” are noted as (1) it ain’t as bad as you think, it’ll look better in the morning, (2) get mad and then get over it, (3) avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it, (4) it can be done, (5) be careful what you choose, you may get it, (6) don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision, (7) you can’t make someone else’s choices, you shouldn’t let someone else make yours, (8) check small things, (9) share credit, (10) remain calm, be kind, (11) have a vision, be demanding, (12) don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers, and (13) perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.