“A Black kid of no early promise.”
That’s how Colin Powell, who died on Monday, described himself in his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey.”
Over his 84 years, the South Bronx-raised son of Jamaican immigrants bucked that narrative, securing a litany of firsts: the country’s first Black national security adviser, first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and first Black secretary of state.
It’s no stretch to say that, at his zenith in the 1990s and early 2000s, Powell was the most influential Black person in US politics. The towering position he had is at least partly what made so painful his pushing of faulty intelligence before the United Nations in 2003 to advocate for the Iraq War.
The retired Army general later characterized his speech as a “blot” on his record.
Powell’s career was marked by something else, too: the fact that he had no issue not marching in lockstep with the Republican Party, which he criticized for decades over its race problem, even though he spent most of his time as a public servant in Republican administrations.
By 2008, the longtime Republican was so disillusioned with his party that he threw his support behind Barack Obama’s bid for the White House. Powell did the same in 2012. In 2016, he endorsed Hillary Clinton; in 2020, Joe Biden.
Following the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol incited by former President Donald Trump, Powell said that he no longer considered himself a Republican.
“That’s why I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican. I’m not a fellow of anything right now,” he told CNN earlier this year. “Right now, I’m just watching my country and not concerned with parties.”
He stood out in a party that he’d eventually dismiss, but he represented a common archetype of a Black man from his generation.
Powell occupied a distinct space in racial politics
Powell embodied a fairly common vein of Black politics — but not Black electoral politics.
“A lot of the views he held on any set of issues — taxes, immigration, individualism, self-determination, national security — you can find Black folks in any barbershop or beauty salon or church who hold similar views,” Ted Johnson, the director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and a retired Navy commander, told CNN. “But the difference with Powell was that his conservative leanings translated into Republican votes.”
In a way, Powell represented the old guard of Black Republicans, especially when it came to challenging the party and embracing more liberal politics. In fact, you could draw a straight line from Powell to former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, who was in office from 1967 to 1979 and was part of a group of moderate Republicans who came close to “changing the direction of their party and the course of history,” as John Nichols wrote in 2015.
A fierce advocate of causes including low-income housing and job creation, Brooke was the first Black American elected to the US Senate by popular vote. He also was the first Republican senator to demand that Nixon resign following the Watergate scandal.
“So, Brooke wasn’t afraid of being a conservative who didn’t toe the party line,” Johnson said. “Colin Powell: clearly a conservative, clearly a Republican. But then he made that speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention, where he said that he’s pro-choice, and he got booed. Again, a conservative who wasn’t afraid to break with the party line.”
Notably, you can detect Powell’s approach to politics in more recent figures.
“If you look at Obama’s national security policy, it looks a lot like Powell’s,” Johnson said. “Powell learned a lot from Vietnam that led to his national security views. There were remnants of that in Obama’s approach to Afghanistan and other places. Powell was a bridge between the old guard Black Republicans — post-civil rights movement, the ’70s forward — and the newer version of the Black pragmatists who helped Joe Biden win in 2020.”
It’s little wonder, then, that on Monday, Obama remembered Powell as “an exemplary soldier and an exemplary patriot.”
“Everyone who worked with General Powell appreciated his clarity of thought, insistence on seeing all sides, and ability to execute,” Obama said in a statement. “And although he’d be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t get every call right, his actions reflected what he believed was best for America and the people he served.”
What the Obama endorsement meant
It can be easy to see Powell’s endorsement of Obama in the 2008 presidential race as a sign of a key pivot in the late general’s political values. Yet it’s more accurate to say that his turn illuminated just how much the Republican Party had changed — for the worse.
“When I see a former governor say that the President is ‘shuckin and jivin,’ that’s a racial-era slave term,” Powell said in 2013, in reference to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who had used the term to blast Obama and who previewed the course that her party would chart.
But Powell criticized more than just one failed vice presidential candidate.
“In recent years, there’s been a significant shift to the right, and we have seen what that shift has produced: two losing presidential campaigns,” he said. “I think what the Republican Party needs to do now is take a very hard look at itself and understand that the country has changed. The country is changing demographically. And if the Republican Party does not change along with that demographic, they’re going to be in trouble.”
(Brooke made a similar observation nearly half a century earlier: “You can’t say the Negro left the Republican Party; the Negro feels he was evicted from the Republican Party.”)
Or put it this way: If anything, Powell’s political values remained constant, while the Republican Party changed with grotesque effect.
“Powell’s support for Obama wasn’t about race exclusively or even predominantly, and it wasn’t a betrayal of the Republican Party,” Johnson said. “He was being true to his conservative values, which were increasingly more aligned with the kind of politics Obama was representing” — Powell regretted his decision to support the Iraq War — “and less with the direction the Republican Party was going in.”
How Powell inspired other Black military members
It’s hard to overstate how profoundly Powell influenced Black Americans, especially Black military members, many of whom regarded him as an exemplar of Black achievement.
Johnson explained Powell’s appeal like this: What Thurgood Marshall was to young Black civil rights lawyers? That’s what Powell was to young Black military members, in particular in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s.
“I was commissioned an officer in 1998, and I used to want to follow in Powell’s footsteps. I was in the Navy, and he was in the Army, but I admired his trajectory,” Johnson said. “Suddenly, it wasn’t ridiculous to dream that I could one day be in one of those rooms — in the Tank at the Pentagon, or in the Situation Room at the White House.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin echoed some of these sentiments on Monday.
“I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He has been my mentor for a number of years. He always made time for me, and I could always go to him with tough issues,” Austin said in remarks. “First African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs, first African American Secretary of State. A man who was respected around the globe. Quite frankly, it is not possible to replace a Colin Powell.”
Johnson emphasized the significance of remembering Powell honestly and rigorously.
“He was a complicated person whose political views evolved over time. But his commitment to good governance was beyond question,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, that’s the story that gets told — that he was a man who grew in the public eye, and his legacy continues to be held in high esteem in Black America.”
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