tells a story that she wrote about this week in the Washington Post after the death of
We spoke about it by phone.
It was 2003, President
George W. Bush’s
first state visit to Britain, and there was a dinner in Buckingham Palace given by the queen. Ms. Rice, then White House national security adviser, found herself in a sitting room off the banquet hall with Secretary of State Powell and his wife,
Alma Johnson Powell.
It was very grand, the women in gowns, Colin in white tie and tails. Talk turned to the past. Condi and Mrs. Powell were daughters of the segregated South, raised in Birmingham, Ala. In 1963, when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by white supremacists, Condi, blocks away in her home, heard the blast and learned that a little girl she played dolls with had been murdered, along with three others. Alma’s father had been principal of the largest black high school in Birmingham, and her uncle principal at the second-largest, where Condi’s father had been a guidance counselor. Colin, raised in the South Bronx, had served in the South in the 1950s, and knew Birmingham from courting Alma.
Now here they were in a palace. They drank a toast to their ancestors. “They never would have believed it,” Condi said. No, said Colin, “but they are smiling right now.” The Powells and Ms. Rice joined the procession into dinner.
“It was such an American moment,” Ms. Rice remembered.
Colin Powell lived a big life and was a great man. His accomplishments have been widely celebrated, but I find myself thinking of the world that made him, and the question we ask when we look at his life.
He was born in Harlem in 1937 and moved to the South Bronx before kindergarten. His father,
had immigrated to America from Jamaica and found work in Manhattan’s Garment District, rising from clerk to foreman. Powell’s mother, also a Jamaican immigrant, worked as a seamstress.
Colin grew up in Hunts Point, a neighborhood full of European immigrants, blacks and Hispanics. He didn’t know he was a member of a minority group, because “there was no majority. Everybody was either a Jew, an Italian, a Pole, a Greek, a Puerto Rican or, as we said in those days, a Negro,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography, “My American Journey.”
He had nothing and everything: hardworking parents who loved him, extended family nearby, a church in whose life the family took part, ethnic pride—West Indians, he noted, are a highly self-regarding people. And there were the schools of New York City in the 1940s and ’50s, a jewel in the crown of American public education, and then City College of New York. “I typified the students that CCNY was created to serve, the sons and daughters of the inner city, the poor, the immigrant. Many of my classmates had the brainpower to attend Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. What they lacked was money and influential connections.” Yet they went on to “compete with and surpass alumni of the most prestigious private campuses in this country.”
As he grew, he found that race is complicated and race is real. When his sister fell in love with a white boy, there was disapproval—from Luther. The white boy’s parents were accepting—it turned out they were “a little more tolerant than the Powells.” The couple married, happily. Years later when Colin met the refined and self-possessed Alma, it was her father who protested. He didn’t think much of West Indians and now his daughter was bringing one into the family.
At CCNY Powell joined ROTC and found a second home. “The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging” lit him up. He became a soldier.
Fort Bragg, N.C., was a revelation to him: He met whites who were not Poles, Jews or Greeks—“virtually my first WASPs.” When he was sent to Fort Benning, his ROTC colonel warned him he must be careful, Georgia was not New York.
It was the 1950s, before civil rights. What he saw shocked him. “I could go into Woolworth’s in Columbus, Georgia, and buy anything I wanted, as long as I did not try to eat there. I could go into a department store and they would take my money, as long as I did not try to use the men’s room.”
All his life he was protective of the U.S. military. Soldiering was the toughest, most dangerous profession, the one in which you swear to the Constitution and pledge your life to protect it. It was also a haven. Everyone lived the same; it was integrated. “Except for the rare couple with inherited wealth, there was scant room for snobbery, since most of us were bringing home the same paycheck and living the same standard.” It was “the most democratic institution in America.”
He came to regard military installations in the South as “healthy cells in an otherwise sick body.” One night in Fort Benning he drove off-post to a hamburger joint. He knew that as a black man he wouldn’t be served inside, so he went to the window to give his order. When the waitress finally arrived she looked at him uneasily.
“Are you a Puerto Rican?” she asked. “No.” “Are you an African student?”
“No,” he said. “I’m a Negro. I’m an American. And I’m an Army officer.”
“Look, I’m from New Jersey,” the waitress said, “and I don’t understand any of this. But they won’t let me serve you.” She offered to pass him a burger out the back window. He said no, he wasn’t that hungry.
He thought white supremacism a “lunatic code,” but he wouldn’t let it wreck him. “Nothing that happened off-post, none of the indignities, none of the injustices, was going to inhibit my performance,” he wrote. “I did not feel inferior, and I was not going to let anybody make me believe I was. . . . Racism was not just a black problem. It was America’s problem. And until the country solved it, I was not going to let bigotry make me a victim instead of a full human being.”
And of course he didn’t, and went on to everything. You gather that throughout his rise he had to balance two outside forces. One didn’t wish to see and celebrate his success because it undercut the urgency of their demands and damaged their business model. The other would seize on his rise as evidence there’s no real racial problem, it’s all exaggerated. He wouldn’t let anyone steal his life to make their point. He’d stick with the truth: America has a race problem but it is a slander that it is irredeemably racist, that progress is impossible.
Here is the question you ask as you look at his life, the question always in the back of your mind now as you consider the great ones who’ve passed: Are we still making their kind? Or have we got so many things wrong we aren’t quite producing them anymore? That’s what our fights about the schools are about: Are we still making these astonishing individuals built along classic American lines? Can we get back to the best parts of the lost world that made Colin Powell?
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