“Duty Before Race”: The Life of Colin Powell

Colin Powell. Charles Haynes, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

by Le’Trice Donaldson

Colin Powell, the trailblazing statesman, and beloved American patriot was laid to rest recently. One of the most common statements proclaimed about the late general was that he loved this country. Indeed, Powell, the protégé of Henry “Gunfighter” Emerson and Casper Weinberger, was viewed as loyal, someone who followed orders, and one who always did his duty. These past few weeks, I have been reflecting on the late general’s military career and the one thing that stood out was that Powell always put his America before race.

Growing up in a Black West Indian immigrant household in the Bronx and Harlem exposed Powell to Black people from throughout the Diaspora. Despite being familiar with a sense of Black solidarity, the former commander’s long and distinguished career is laden with moments where he chooses duty over racial obligation. Powell firmly believed his loyalty should always be to the country first. Yet, the reason he is a trailblazer has everything to do with his race.

Powell proclaimed in one of his autobiographies, “The Army has always been good to Blacks.” When Powell joined the Army in 1958, the U.S. Armed forces were still struggling to desegregate and become fully integrated. At Fort Benning, Powell trained in a predominately white world and traveled long distances to eat at Black-owned establishments and worship at a Black church. Despite these inconveniences, Powell enjoyed the structure and clear path to success that the military provided. When his mentor and commander General Emerson put him in charge of rooting out and cracking down on Black militants in the Eighth Army’s First Battalion in 1973 in Seoul, Powell eagerly jumped at the chance to prove his worth.

A race riot broke out within a few days of Powell’s arrival. The racial tensions amongst the men ran high because of fights between white and Black soldiers at local bars and symbolic infractions, including the removal of a Black Liberation Flag. General Emerson believed that showing Brian’s Song (1971) would be the best way to achieve racial harmony. Powell, a Lt. Colonel, did not attempt to understand the source of these tensions. He discharged Black soldiers who had organized to have their racial grievances heard and drilled his battalion so hard that they could not fight one another. By viewing the Black soldiers as troublemakers, Powell proved his allegiance to the Army to the detriment of other Black soldiers. Historian Jeffery Matthews in his book Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot, described Powell as a loyal follower and subordinate. Major General John A. Wickham asserted, “He was very reassuring to those above him.”

Powell moved up the ranks both militarily and politically. He became the senior military assistant and protégé to Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1980. In 1983 he helped organize the 1983 invasion of the small Black Caribbean nation of Grenada. The U.S. military began conducting mock invasions of Grenada in 1981. The Reagan Administration took full advantage of the assassination of Maurice Bishop to ensure a pro-American government was installed. The Reagan Administration viewed Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Leftist movement as a Soviet satellite, even though it was not. Powell was the first Afro-Caribbean American to serve in that position. He helped orchestrate the Grenada invasion without considering the long-term consequences for the rest of the Caribbean or his representation as a Black man of Caribbean descent aiding in the invasion of a Black Caribbean nation.

In 2001, a few days before the world-changing events of September 11th, Secretary of State Colin Powell decided to withdraw U.S. participation from the World Conference Against Racism. In a letter to Dr. Dorothy Height, the then chairperson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Powell cites the possibility of the conference focusing on “divisive regional issues, thereby preventing the Conference from addressing the larger issue of racism affecting all societies.” The divisive issue was related to tying Zionism to racism. Powell chose to follow the Bush line rather than participate in a global initiative to fight racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. He chose duty before race.

The legacy of Colin Powell reflects the life of a fallible but loyal patriot; yet, in all the eulogies and reflections on his life, it is important to remember the totality of his legacy including what he did during the Obama years, the Reagan years, and in Korea. He repeatedly chose a path most pleasing to the military community rather than the Black community.

Le’Trice Donaldson is an Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and a Benjamin L. Hooks Academic Research Fellow. She is the author of Duty Beyond the Battlefield: African American Soldiers Fight for Racial Uplift, Citizenship, and Manhood, 1870-1920

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