As a Black Republican, Colin Powell challenged party to be more inclusive

U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell
U.S Secretary of State Colin Powell waves as he arrives in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace on June 5, 2004 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

The world awakened Monday to the sad news that we had lost a great American soldier, statesman and former US Secretary of State in Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell. 

General Powell’s death stings because he died of “covid complications.” He was fully vaccinated, which makes his breakthrough infection all the more tragic. However, it is important to note that Powell’s immune system was weakened as he was trying to successfully fight off cancer. That this awful disease has claimed yet another great life, and makes us reflect on our own mortality, is something worth considering.

I first met General Powell as a young woman of 23. He was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Our paths would cross again and again in our shared Republican circles, as always one of just a few Black moderate Republicans in the old GOP. I remember the excitement in 1996, when everyone in America held their collective breaths hoping he would run for president.

Secretary of State Colin Powell briefs the press on the latest diplomatic developments the State Department March 17, 2003 In Washington, DC. (Photo by Mike Theiler/Getty Images)

I always expected him to be the nation’s first Black commander in chief. I think we all did. My father, a Vietnam veteran like Powell, called him the “Black Ike” as in former World War II Commanding General Eisenhower, turned Republican president in the 1950s. 

General Powell’s story is a great immigrant story and American story. The small boy from the Bronx in New York, who attended city college in New York, joined ROTC and went on to become a decorated soldier, presidential advisor, U.S. Secretary of State. He became one of the most celebrated Americans of his generation.

Powell embodied the best of our nation’s talent and as a Black man in America. He represented all of the traits; a good and honorable family man that so many of us in the Black community, despite racial stereotypes, know to be commonplace. He was a powerful role model for Black men and boys long before we knew who Barack Obama was. Powell would even become a kingmaker when he endorsed Obama for president in 2008.

He was a faithful husband, doting father, and a man of faith, integrity and honor. He was greatly admired by everyone. He cut across political and cultural lines and the like. 

If there was any controversy in his storied life, it was that he eventually declared himself as a Black Republican in the 1990s. That was to the surprise of no one since he had served every Republican president from Ronald Reagan to George HW Bush and eventually George W. Bush. But General Powell also challenged the Republican Party of the 1990s and 2000s to stop pushing away minorities and embrace equality of thought. He called on the party to take their message to Black communities versus running away from them.

Powell, like myself, former RNC Chairman Michael Steele and many others, was a constant (and not often well-heeded) voice to the last generation of Republican leaders like the Bush administrations, RNC Chairmen Haley Barbour and others, that if they continued down the path of appealing to southern white voters with polarizing language and policies geared disproportionately toward the wealthy and big corporations, they would end up as a smaller, more regional and shrinking party.

Powell was right as that is exactly where the Republican Party is today in 2021.

In the past several years of his life, General Powell made clear that he could no longer be a Republican in the era of Donald J. Trump. He made many statements, and a few appearances on national TV talk shows and major networks warning of how dangerous Trump was to the Republic. In his last act of patriotism, he endorsed Democrat Joe Biden for president at 2020 Democratic National Convention. Powell’s endorsement may not have swayed any Republican votes for Biden, but it was a clear indication of the moral character and fiber of a great man who always put his country first. Even over his chosen political party.

I think the great irony of Powell’s life and political career is that he could have once been the future of the Republican Party — or as he called it, the Party of Lincoln. He could have been its standard bearer. He could have led it out of the wilderness and into a party that would have been able to claim the first Black president of the United States.

Alas, it was not meant to be because as we all know Powell chose to not run, citing personal reasons including his wife’s fears for his life. Her fears at that time were probably not unfounded. 

Colin L. Powell will go down in American history as a trailblazing military leader and statesmen who always conducted himself with integrity and dignity. He was surely tarnished by the case he made at the United Nations in 2003 when he was sent as a credible emissary of the Bush White House to sell the world on Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

It was certainly something Powell regretted in later years and based on books by Bob Woodward and others, may have been duped into from the outset. If so, it was clearly because Powell was the most believable of the Bush senior advisors to do so. After all, Powell the General, Powell the statesman would never lie to the American people. 

In the final analysis, Powell’s life will be heralded as one of greatness. One of hard work. One of humility. One of duty. One of honor. And most of all a life worth emulating. May God bless Colin Powell and his family. 

Sophia Nelson

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.”

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