Colin Powell, first Black U.S. secretary of state, passes at age 84

General Colin L. Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


General Colin Powell died from complications of COVID-19 on Monday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. Powell was 84.

“General Colin L. Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff passed away this morning due to complications from COVID- 19,” the former general’s family wrote on Facebook.

 “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather, and a great American,” the family wrote. The family reported that Powell had been fully vaccinated.  A longtime aide said he had previously received treatment for a blood cancer, multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma inhibits the body’s ability to fight infection.

“Mine is the story of a Black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey.” Powell was the son of Jamaican immigrants.

Powell was thrust into the global spotlight after leading the U.S. to victory during the first Gulf War and considered running for president in 1995.

After graduating from City College, where he admitted he was a mediocre student, in June 1958, he entered the U.S. Army after participating in R.O.T.C. and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

Powell served two tours in Vietnam beginning in 1962 when he served as an Army adviser to South Vietnamese troops. He was assigned to Vietnam again in 1968.

Powell was charged with investigating a detailed letter by 11th Light Infantry Brigade soldier Tom Glen, which backed up rumored allegations of the My Lai Massacre. As part of his investigation, Powell wrote: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

Powell was viewed as an outstanding officer and was promoted up through the ranks.  In 1979, at the age of 42, he was promoted to one-star general, becoming the youngest general officer in the Army at the time.

He later was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan at the end of the Cold War, helping negotiate arms treaties and an era of cooperation with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.

He was U.S. National Security Advisor from 1987 to 1989 and served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the highest military position in the Department of Defense from 1989 to 1993. Powell was the first African American to hold these positions.

During his term as Joint Chiefs chairman, his approach to war became known as the Powell Doctrine, which held that the United States should only commit forces in a conflict if it has clear and achievable objectives with public support, sufficient firepower, and a strategy for ending the war. If American force is to be used, proponents of the doctrine said, it should be overpowering and decisive.

In December 2000, he became the first Black person to hold the cabinet post of Secretary of State when he was appointed by President George W. Bush. “General Powell is an American hero, an American example, and a great American story,” Bush said at the time. “It’s a great day when a son of the South Bronx succeeds to the office first held by Thomas Jefferson.”

Powell is remembered by many for his 76-minute speech before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003. He made the case for war to disarm Iraq, presenting photographs, electronic intercepts of conversations between Iraqi military officers, and information from defectors aimed at proving that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent danger to the world.

Two years later, the former general told Barbara Walters of ABC News that his speech to the United Nations had been “painful” for him personally and would forever be a “blot” on his record.

“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” Powell said, acknowledging that his presentation “will always be a part of my record.”

In a 2012 interview, he said, “Leaving Saddam Hussein in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post-September 11th world.’’

In 1997, he had founded America’s Promise, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping at-risk children. He later served as the chairman of the board of visitors of the School for Civic and Global Leadership, named for him at the City University of New York.

Powell twice was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was honored by the NAACP with its Spingarn Medal in 1991.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the nation’s first Black Pentagon chief, expressed sadness and surprise upon hearing the news of Powell’s passing. “The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” Austin told reporters on Monday morning. “And it will be, quite frankly, it is not possible to replace a Colin Powell.”