African Americans reflect on leader who made history
Colin Powell is being remembered after his death at age 84. (AP photo)
(AP) -- As an American leader, Colin Powell’s credentials were impeccable: He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state. But his legacy as the first Black person in those roles is murkier, with some African Americans saying that his voice on their behalf could have been louder.
Powell, who died Monday of COVID-19 complications, spent 35 years in the Army and rose to political prominence under Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. His stature fueled persistent speculation that he would one day run for president as a member of the GOP.
Through it all, Powell never seemed entirely comfortable talking about race, said Kevin Powell, a New York-based writer and rights activist who is not related to Colin Powell.
Colin Powell later became disenchanted with the Republican Party and endorsed Democrats for president, starting with Barack Obama. Powell also called then-President Donald Trump a national disgrace and said he no longer considered himself a Republican following the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.
“By the time the Bush years were over, in 2009, he was largely invisible in a lot of things that happened — Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, George Floyd,” said Kevin Powell, who also is Black.
But Powell’s dignity and composure should not be interpreted as any indication that he failed to understand the struggle of his people, according to Sam Riddle, an Army veteran and Detroit-based political activist.
Powell expressed concern over the U.S. rate of incarceration, which has consistently been the highest in the world. He favored policies designed to keep young adults, especially Black Americans, out of the criminal justice system.
Years before the 2020 murder of George Floyd renewed calls from the Black Lives Matter movement to “defund the police,” Powell said he was not in favor of reducing law enforcement budgets to address police brutality. He suspected that many Black Americans agreed.
A child of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in the Bronx borough of New York City, Powell said he was raised in a community where his neighbors were as invested in his safety and success as his own mother and father.
Powell graduated in 1958 from City College of New York, which later created the Colin Powell Center to develop student leadership and campus community engagement. The program was eventually renamed the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.
Powell once said he wanted the next generation to have opportunities like he did, according to Andrew Rich, dean of the Colin Powell School.
Being a Black American “defined his experience,” Rich said. “He was a trailblazer in every sense. I think he was very aware of the barriers he broke. One of the things he was so proud of was that he knocked open doors and did not close them behind him.”
Former President Barack Obama said Monday that Powell helped “a generation of young people set their sights higher” and “never denied the role that race played in his own life and in our society more broadly.”
Many Black people look to high-achieving African Americans to act on their behalf, said Frederick Gooding, associate professor of humanities at Texas Christian University.
“When it comes to African Americans, often times, when you’ve been touched by the struggle so to speak, when you have a position of power and privilege, do you leverage it?” Gooding said. “He may not have been that front-line cheerleader, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t affected by the struggle.”