I had the distinct honor of meeting Colin Powell when I was in college. He was serving as the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the nation’s highest military office. Prior to that role, he had become the first African American to serve as national security adviser. He would become the first to serve as secretary of state. “First African American” and “Colin Powell” are nearly synonymous.
Having had the opportunity to ask him a question, I did so: “Can you give an example of when you experienced racism?” He shared a story about having recently being assigned to pick up a dignitary from the airport. The two men had not met and neither knew what the other looked like. The gentleman got off the plane and proceeded to ask several white men if they were Gen. Powell. It never occurred to him that the distinguished Black man could be Powell, who was not wearing his military uniform.
At the time, I was very disappointed in Gen. Powell’s answer. I assumed that he was going to talk about being surrounded by some group of rabid bigots. I had imagined that he had valiantly fought them off. Yet, as I matured, I began to understand the power of his answer. He had undoubtedly experienced several of the overtly racist incidents that Black people endure. Yet, in his wisdom, he wanted the students to understand that racism comes in many forms. It is insidious.
It would be nearly three decades before I met him again, this time thanks to Indianapolis’ own Steward Speakers Series. Still, I would frequently watch him on various news programs or speaking at public events, dispensing his sage advice.
Though he was a high-profile Republican, Powell endorsed Barack Obama during his first presidential run. Many Republicans argued that Obama was “unfit” to be president because of the oft-repeated lie that he is a Muslim. Powell responded on “Meet the Press”:
“I’m also troubled by, not what Sen. McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said. Such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. … Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated (with) terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.” That was perhaps Powell’s finest hour — in a long list of fine hours.
To make matters worse, many Republicans said then (and now) that Powell endorsed Obama only because they both are Black. This act of bigotry and hypocrisy is an example of why the GOP is roughly 90% white — in a nation that is only 60% white.
Then there is Iraq.
It is an understatement to assert that nearly every public figure’s legacy is complicated. Powell is no exception. His integrity, accomplishments and presence led to his being nearly universally respected — which is why his endorsement of military action in Iraq is arguably the deciding factor in justifying our invasion.
Powell argued forcefully that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Tragically, the intelligence on which Powell relied was faulty. His reputation was tainted. Some people never forgave him, despite his having expressed great regret.
Once upon a time, Colin Powell was lauded by Republicans and Democrats — a feat that is nearly non-existent today. What we formerly referred to as “respect on both sides of the aisle” has devolved into “yelling from one side of the isle.” Both sides have staked claims on remote political beaches. Our politics is adrift in a sea of hatred and disinformation.
Powell conceivably could have become president had he desired the office. (I would have voted for him without reservation.) Despite the Iraq debacle, he was a man of integrity. A child of immigrants, Powell is the personification of the mythic “American Dream.”
For me, Colin Powell represents the promise of what any American can become. All he needed was determination and people who were willing to take him under their wings. I believe that, a few days ago, Powell received his.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.