Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.) on stage during the Capital Concerts’ “National Memorial Day Concert” in Washington, DC, May 28, 2021.
On October 18, 2021, our country lost one of its finest leaders. Colin Powell was the first African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first African American to serve as secretary of state. Over his long military and political career, he served six different American presidents. In recent years, he was diagnosed with cancer. The cancer compromised his immune system and made it more difficult for his body to fight off infectious diseases. As a result Powell died after contracting COVID-19, despite being fully vaccinated.
Colin Luther Powell was born in New York, New York, on April 5, 1937. The son of Luther and Maud Powell, both Jamaican immigrants, young Colin was raised in the Harlem and South Bronx neighborhoods of New York City. In 1954, he graduated from high school and then attended the City College of New York, studying geology.
At City College, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). It was training with the ROTC that set him on a career path that would lead him to the highest levels of the U.S. military and government. After graduation in 1958, Powell joined the U.S. Army.
One of his first military posts was at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. There he served as a second lieutenant. While at Fort Devens, he met his wife—Alma. Alma and Colin were married for almost 60 years. Together they raised three children—Michael, Linda, and Annemarie.
Powell fought in the Vietnam War during two tours—from 1962 to 1963 and from 1968 to 1969. During the war he served with distinction, earning several military honors, including the Bronze Star for bravery. After the war, Powell remained in the Army and continued to rise through the ranks. He also went back to school. He attended George Washington University—to earn a Masters of Business Administration—and the National War College—where he learned more about the “theory and practice of war.”
In 1972, Powell was offered his first job in the U.S. government at the Office of Management and Budget. In 1976, he was promoted to brigadier general. He then worked for the deputy secretary of defense and the secretary of energy under President Jimmy Carter. In 1987, Powell became the national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Powell to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This made Powell the highest-ranking officer in the United States Military and the most senior military adviser to the President. Powell became the first African American to hold this prestigious post. As Chairman, he played a leading role in planning and organizing U.S. troops for the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
After a long and successful career, Powell retired from the military in 1993. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Colin Powell as his secretary of state. This marked another first for our country and for Powell. He was the first African American to serve as secretary of state. The secretary of state is one of the highest positions in the executive branch of government. The secretary of state is fourth in line to the presidency, after the president pro tempore of the Senate.
As secretary of state Colin Powell made one of the few missteps of his career. In the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, he promoted intelligence that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction. When it later turned out that this intelligence was wrong, Powell’s reputation suffered. He later said that he regretted his part in promoting the false intelligence. He resigned as secretary of state in 2004.
Now a private citizen for the first time in many, many years, Powell remained active in politics. For much of his career, Powell identified with the Republican Party, having served 4 different Republican presidents. However, as the party’s beliefs and priorities began to shift, Powell seemed to no longer see a place for himself in the Republican Party. In 2008, he endorsed Democrat Barack Obama for president. He went on to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and announced his support for Joe Biden in 2020.
In addition to politics, Powell also focused much of his energy later in life to supporting the success of America’s youth. As the Founding Chair of America’s Promise Alliance, Powell dedicated himself to a new mission, ensuring that all children in the United States have equal access to the conditions that promote success—caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to help others. Today, Alma Powell leads America’s Promise.
Image credit: ©Paul Morigi/Getty Images
- Colin Powell, first Black US secretary of state, dies of Covid-19 complications amid cancer battle
(Source: CNN; accessed November 4, 2021)
- Colin Powell
(Source: Britannica.com; accessed November 4, 2021)
- Colin Powell
(Source: Biography.com; accessed November 4, 2021)
- America’s Promise
(Source: America’s Promise Alliance; accessed November 4, 2021)