Colin Powell, a retired four-star general and secretary of state under President George W. Bush concludes his great American journey with an interview at the age of 95. In this momentous occasion, Colin reflects on America’s future as well as how the United States should respond to growing diplomatic tensions around the globe.
Colin Powell’s Great American Journey is a biography of former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. The book was written by Robert Dallek, who also wrote “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963”.
Condoleezza Rice relates a tale about Colin Powell’s death that she wrote about in the Washington Post this week. We discussed it over the phone.
It was 2003, President George W. Bush’s first state visit to the United Kingdom, and the queen hosted a supper at Buckingham Palace. Ms. Rice, who was then the White House national security advisor, was in a sitting room off the dining hall with Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma Johnson Powell. The ladies wore gowns, and Colin wore a white tie and tails. The conversation shifted to the past. Condi and Mrs. Powell were born and reared in Birmingham, Alabama, amid a segregated South. Condi was a few streets away in her house when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by white supremacists in 1963, and she heard the explosion and discovered that a young girl she used to play dolls with had been slain, along with three others. Alma’s father was the head of Birmingham’s biggest black high school, and her uncle was the principal of Birmingham’s second-largest, where Condi’s father worked as a guidance counselor. Colin, a native of the South Bronx, had served in the South during the 1950s and had met Alma in Birmingham.
Barbara Kelley’s illustration
They had arrived at a palace. They raised a glass to their forefathers and mothers. Condi remarked, “They would have never believed it.” “They aren’t smiling right now,” Colin added. Ms. Rice and the Powells joined the procession into supper.
Ms. Rice said, “It was such an American moment.”
Colin Powell was a remarkable guy who had a large life. His achievements have been publicly lauded, but I’m reminded of the society that shaped him, as well as the question we pose when we consider his life.
In 1937, he was born in Harlem and relocated to the South Bronx before starting kindergarten. Luther Powell, his father, had emigrated to America from Jamaica and worked in Manhattan’s Garment District, climbing through the ranks from clerk to supervisor. Powell’s mother, a seamstress, was also a Jamaican immigrant.
Colin grew up at Hunts Point, a diverse community that included European immigrants, African-Americans, and Hispanics. Because “there was no majority,” he was unaware that he was a member of a minority group. “Everyone was either a Jew, an Italian, a Pole, a Greek, a Puerto Rican, or, as we used to say back then, a Negro,” he said in his book “My American Journey,” published in 1995.
He had everything and nothing: loving parents, extended relatives nearby, a church in which the family was active, and ethnic pride—West Indians, he remarked, are a self-centered people. Then there were the New York City schools of the 1940s and 1950s, which were the crown jewels of American public education, and then there was City College of New York. “I embodied the students that CCNY was founded to serve, the inner-city kids, the underprivileged, and the immigrants. Many of my classmates were intelligent enough to go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Money and powerful connections were the only things they needed.” Despite this, they went on to “compete with and outperform graduates of the country’s most prominent private institutions.”
As he got older, he realized that race is both confusing and real. When his sister fell in love with a white male, Luther expressed his displeasure. The white boy’s parents were accepting—they were “a touch more tolerant than the Powells,” as it turned out. The pair married and had a happy life together. When Colin met the elegant and self-assured Alma years later, it was her father who objected. He was not a fan of West Indians, but his daughter was about to welcome one into the family.
Powell joined ROTC at CCNY and discovered a second home. He was enthralled by the discipline, organization, friendship, and feeling of belonging. He enlisted as a soldier.
For him, Fort Bragg, N.C., was a revelation: he encountered whites who weren’t Poles, Jews, or Greeks—”virtually my first WASPs.” His ROTC colonel told him that Georgia was not New York when he was assigned to Fort Benning.
It was the 1950s, and civil rights had not yet been established. He was taken aback by what he saw. “As long as I didn’t attempt to dine there, I could walk into Woolworth’s in Columbus, Georgia, and purchase anything I wanted.” I could go into a department shop and have my money taken away as long as I didn’t attempt to use the men’s room.”
He has always been a staunch supporter of the US military. Soldiering was the most difficult and hazardous occupation, requiring you to swear allegiance to the Constitution and sacrifice your life to preserve it. It was a safe sanctuary as well. It was an integrated community where everyone lived the same way. “There was no place for snobbery, save for the unusual couple with inherited riches, since most of us were bringing home the same wage and living the same lifestyle.” It was “America’s most democratic institution.”
Military outposts in the South became “healthy cells in an otherwise diseased body” for him. He traveled off-post to a hamburger shop one night at Fort Benning. He knew he wouldn’t be served inside since he was black, so he walked to the window to place his order. When the waitress came, she gave him an uneasy look.
“Are you of Puerto Rican ancestry?” she enquired. “No.” “Are you a student from Africa?”
“No,” he said emphatically. “I’m a black man.” I’m a citizen of the United States of America. I’m also a military officer.”
“Look, I’m from New Jersey, and I have no idea what’s going on here,” the waitress said. They won’t let me serve you, however.” She offered to deliver a burger to him via the rear window. He declined, claiming that he wasn’t that hungry.
He considered white supremacy to be a “lunatic code,” but he refused to let it destroy him. “Nothing off-post, no indignities, no injustices, none of it was going to detract from my performance,” he wrote. “I didn’t feel inferior, and I wasn’t going to let anybody convince me otherwise.” Racism was not just a black issue. It was an issue that was solely the responsibility of the United States of America. And I wasn’t going to allow discrimination turn me into a victim instead of a whole human being until the country fixed it.”
Of course, he didn’t, and proceeded to do everything. You get the impression that he had to juggle two opposing forces throughout his career. One didn’t want to witness or celebrate his accomplishment since it diminished the intensity of their demands and jeopardized their business model. The other would point to his ascent as proof that there is no true racial issue, and that everything is being exaggerated. He would not allow somebody to take his life in order to make a statement. He’d tell it like it is: America has a racial issue, but the claim that it is irredeemably racist and that reform is impossible is a lie.
Here’s the question you ask as you reflect on his life, the one that’s constantly on your mind as you think about the great ones who’ve passed: Are we still producing their kind? Or have we gotten so many things wrong that we can no longer produce them? That is the crux of our educational debates: are we still producing these incredible people along traditional American lines? Is it possible to return to the finest portions of the vanished civilization that gave birth to Colin Powell?
China’s hypersonic missile launch indicates how cyber assaults and autonomous vehicles will be used to strike from afar in the next big battle. The Biden administration has so far chosen to ignore the warning flags. Getty Images/EPA/Shutterstock/EPA/Shutterstock/EPA/EPA/EPA/EPA/EPA/EPA/EPA/EPA Mark Kelly’s composite
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