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Gen. Colin L. Powell, The First Black Joint Chief And Secretary Of State, Has Joined The Ancestors At 84

Gen. Colin L. Powell, The First Black Joint Chief And Secretary Of State, Has Joined The Ancestors At 84

We salute you! 

Colin L. Powell, the military leader that helped shape national security and blazed a trail for Black people in the armed services, passed away at 84 years old. His family announced his death this morning on Facebook.

Powell had multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that suppresses the body's immune response. Although fully vaccinated, immunocompromised people are still at a greater risk of being infected and experiencing severe complications from the virus.

Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937, in Harlem and raised in the diverse area of Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. His parents, Luther Powell, a shipping-room foreman in Manhattan's garment district, and Maud Ariel McKoy, a seamstress, both immigrated to the States from Jamaica.

Powell graduated from Morris High School in the Bronx in 1954, then went to City College of New York and majored in geology. In the past, he spoke about being a mediocre student, carrying a C average, but then he decided to enroll in the college's Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. He was impressed by the friendship, discipline, and goals of the group. Cadet Powell joined the Pershing Rifles, a drill team started by Gen. John J. Pershing, a top American commander in World War I.

Although enjoyable, his time in the ROTC wasn't without its challenges. While attending summer ROTC training in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1957, he was forced to use segregated bathrooms in the Deep South as he made his way home back to New York. The general kept the Pershing Rifles close to his heart throughout his career. He was known to keep a pen set he had won at a drill-team competition decades earlier on his desk.

After graduating from City College in June 1958, he began his 35-year military career after being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the newly desegregated Army. During this time, he met the woman who'd become his wife, Alma Vivian Johnson, on a blind date. They married in August 1962. During their 59 year marriage, they raised three children Linda Powell, Annmarie Lyons, and Michael Powell, who served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Powell served two decorated combat tours in Vietnam in the 1960s, where he was wounded twice, including during a helicopter crash in which he rescued two soldiers. Due to his prowess and determination, he quickly rose through the ranks — including battalion command in Korea in 1973 and brigade command in the elite 101st Airborne Division in 1976. His peers called him a "water walker," a term of respect for the most talented officers.

Then in 1979, at only 42, he was promoted to one-star general, becoming the youngest general officer in the Army at the time. He served as Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger's senior military assistant and, in the spring of 1986, went off to command V Corps, leading 75,000 soldiers in West Germany during the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan called on him five months later to become the first Black national security adviser. In this role, he was integral in negotiating arms treaties with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

He secured another first in 1989, when he succeeded Adm. William J. Crowe as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for George H. W. Bush, bypassing more than 14 more senior four-star officers. Later that year, the general left the White House to lead the Army's Forces Command and became only the fourth Black four-star general in Army history. He was a figure that Black people in the military could look up to and challenged the bigotry of White people who doubted him.

Powell was one of the most popular public figures in America when he retired from the Army in 1993. Many people called for him to run to become the first Black president, but on November 8, 1995, he said he did not have the drive and desire necessary to run for the nation's highest office. However, in 2001 he returned to public service as the first Black secretary of state under President George W. Bush.

"I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country," Powell said of his history-making nomination during his Senate confirmation hearing. "It shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning if you believe in the values that espouse, you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval."

Although initially an opponent to the war in Iraq, telling President Bush, “You break it, you’re going to own it,” noting that war would destabilize the Middle East. He faced scrutiny over his decision to eventually support the war at the United Nations, especially when it was revealed there were no weapons were found. He told Barbara Waters in 2003 that it was a "painful" memory for him. When Bush was reelected in 2004, Powell tendered his resignation at the president's request.

“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world...[this] will always be a part of my record,” Powell said of his UN speech.

As a civilian, he kept a relatively low profile until 2008, when he endorsed then-presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, with over two weeks left in the campaign. His backing gave credence to Obama's campaign, dispelling the notion that he lacked the experience to be commander in chief.

"When I look at all of this, and I think back to my Army career, we've got two individuals, either one of them could be a good president. But which is the president that we need now…And I come to the conclusion that because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities…he has both style and substance--he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president," Powell said on NBC's Meet The Press. "I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming into the world--onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason, I'll be voting for Senator Barack Obama."

President Obama expressed his condolences via Twitter.

Powell left office in 2004 and spent his civilian years working to empower youth. He was the founding chairmen of America's Promise Alliance, the nation's largest partnership organization dedicated to improving the lives of children by creating conditions where they can thrive.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, he described himself like this, "Powell is a problem-solver. He was taught as a soldier to solve problems. So he has views, but he's not an ideologue. He has passion, but he's not a fanatic. He's first and foremost a problem-solver."

He is survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren.

We are sending our thoughts and prayers to all that knew him.

Photo Credit: Smithsonian/Colin Powell