Colin Powell’s career in the military and public service involved leaping over hurdles as a Black man in America.
And in 2003, he jumped into the fray over affirmative action. As the nation’s first Black secretary of state, he spoke out about Grutter v. Bollinger, a landmark Supreme Court case involving the University of Michigan Law School and racial preference in admissions. In doing so, he broke ranks with the White House and then-President George W. Bush.
“I wish it was possible for everything to be race-neutral in this country, but I’m afraid we’re not yet at that point where things are race-neutral,” he said. “I believe race should be a factor, among many other facts, in determining the makeup of the student body of a university.”
This wasn’t the first time Powell, who died Monday at age 84, had spoken out about affirmative action, notes Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. He was consistent in his beliefs, even as some conservatives and other detractors used the term as a slight against him, claiming the four-star general had ascended in his career only because of affirmative action.
During the Republican National Convention in 2000, “Powell gave a speech urging the party to moderate their positions on race, and he talked about affirmative action,” Gillespie said.
“We must understand the cynicism that exists in the Black community, the kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand Black kids get an education,” Powell told the audience.
“But hardly a whimper is heard over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests,” he added.
“He took a courageous stance,” Gillespie said. “He did so at a time when the GOP was shifting to the right on racial issues.”
Gillespie described Powell’s passing as “the end of an era” for a certain cohort of Black Republicans in the fashion of the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke III, elected in 1966; and Arthur Fletcher, a Black Republican sometimes called “the father of affirmative action” who served as assistant secretary of labor in President Richard Nixon’s administration.
“They were ideological moderates, pro-civil rights,” Gillespie said. “Their role was to push for the party’s plank of civil rights, and it was welcomed and encouraged,” she said, by moderates such as the so-called Rockefeller Republicans.
To understand Powell’s ideology, one must consider his uniquely American story, explains Chad Williams, chair of African and African American studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
Powell was born to Jamaican immigrants in Harlem in the 1930s.
He attended public schools and graduated from the City College of New York in 1958. While in college, he joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps and received a commission as second lieutenant upon graduation. After basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he embarked on a military career that took him to operational and command assignments in the United States, Germany, Vietnam and South Korea.
He had been a White House Fellow in 1972, worked as an executive assistant in the Energy and Defense departments during President Jimmy Carter's administration, served as senior military assistant to President Ronald Reagan’s Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and was Reagan's national security adviser from 1987 to 1989.
These leadership roles culminated in his appointment as the first Black officer to hold the nation’s highest military post. President George H.W. Bush announced he’d named Gen. Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. Later in Bush’s presidency, Powell became the architect of Operation Desert Shield, which moved American and international forces to the Middle East to launch Operation Desert Storm. The military operation reversed the invasion of Kuwait and defeated the Iraqi army.
“When I heard of Powell’s passing, I was immediately reminded of what [W.E.B.] Du Bois referred to as the “double-consciousness” of the African American experience,” said Williams, who spoke to NBC News and has also explored these themes in an essay for “The Conversation.”
“As DuBois put it in an 1897 article and later in his classic 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk,” this “peculiar sensation” is unique to African Americans: “One feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
This concept, Williams believes, aptly describes Powell “as a soldier, a career military man and a politician.”
“On the surface, Colin Powell’s life would seem to refute DuBois’ formulation. He stood as someone that many people could point to as an example of how it is possible to be both Black and a full American, something DuBois viewed as an enduring tension,” he writes. “There is a narrative that Powell used the military to transcend race and become one of the most powerful men in the country. In that sense, he was the ultimate American success story.”
Yet, Williams said, there is a danger to that narrative. “Colin Powell’s story was exceptional, but he was no avatar of a colorblind, post-racial America.”
Indeed, many scholars and pundits cite how Powell — at one point touted as a potential Republican presidential contender — crossed party lines to endorse Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. And later, his public repudiation of Donald Trump’s presidency, which alienated him from the GOP he loved.
“He always categorized himself as being willing to make up his own mind and he frequently reflected on the ways, especially when it came to social issues, that his stances did not align with the Republican Party,” historian Betsy Loren Plumb said.
“His reasoned approach to politics — his willingness to grapple with and ‘accept hard realities’ as he states in his bio, ‘My American Journey’ — led to this ideological independence. He noted that he himself benefited from affirmative action. There was a historical imbalance in access and opportunity and it was fair, to Powell’s mind, that those imbalances be corrected. His experience, as a Black man, equipped him with the ability to assess the situation expertly and honestly. He lived those hard realities.”
Kay Coles James has served and advised four presidential administrations. She is now the first Black woman to serve as president of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“We go way, way back,” she said of interacting with Powell professionally and forming a friendship.
“What a profound impact he’s had on this country and so many lives as a youth mentor and role model,” she said. “One of his most lasting legacies is that he is a credible Black Republican conservative. We don’t have a lot of those,” she said. “One that garnered the respect of all.”
In 2003, Powell laid out what he said at the time was evidence of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction to the United Nations Security Council. It turned out to be false, something Powell acknowledged tarnished his legacy. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq led to decades of chaos and violence in that country, and broader destabilization of the Middle East.
As high-profile Black Republicans, James and Powell had many conversations. But when asked if they ever discussed affirmative action, she said, “we did not.”
People must “tread lightly” and define the terms around affirmative action, she noted. “Those very words mean so many things to so many different people.”
James prefers to frame the issue not as affirmative action, but “affirmative access” meaning: do people of color have the access to compete on an equal footing?
She posits that Powell’s legacy is the blueprint for this. “No one should dare question his achievements. Yes, he was the first African American to break many barriers. But you can’t say he checked some “African American” box. It was because of his knowledge, skills and abilities.”