Tributes pour in for Colin Powell

84 year-old Powell went from Jamaican immigrant roots in NYC to being first black State Secretary.

Colin Powell

Colin Powell, the Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants, who was awarded military honors for saving fellow soldiers from a burning helicopter crash in Vietnam and went on to become the first black Secretary of State, has died at age 84.

The former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was fully vaccinated but died of COVID-19 complications, his family announced on Facebook.

He had previously been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that impacts the body’s ability to fight infections. Powell also suffered from Parkinson’s and underwent surgery for prostate cancer in 2003.

Born in New York on April 5, 1937 to Luther and Maude Powell, who arrived in Philadelphia on a ‘banana boat’ steamer from Jamaica in the 1920s, Powell rose from modest means to oversee some of the most significant foreign policy shifts across the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Along with his many military honors he also earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice, the Congressional Gold Medal and an award from the NAACP.

‘Many Presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience,’ George W. Bush wrote in a statement on Powell’s death. ‘He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.’

“Gen. Colin Powell lived a life of honor and integrity. A four-star general, the first Black US Secretary of State, and an NAACP Spingarn Medal recipient. He was a good man who inspired many,” said Derrick Johnson, president, and CEO, NAACP. “He will be remembered as an outstanding public servant and a proponent of civil rights. He will be remembered for serving with wisdom and strength. We honor his life and mourn his passing.”

Powell grew up in the South Bronx and graduated from Morris High School in 1954.

His parents referred to him as ‘Chal-in’, the British pronunciation Jamaicans used, when he was growing up. But kids on the street started calling him ‘Coh-lin’ in honor of the hero Second World War fighter pilot Colin Kelly Jr, who died fighting the Japanese navy in the days after Pearl Harbor.

Powell worked his way up the military chain of command for years until Reagan appointed him his national security adviser in 1987.

During that time he continued to rise through the military ranks with a promotion to Brigadier General in 1979, major general in 1983, lieutenant general in 1986 and four-star general in 1989.Portrait Of General Colin Powell

His Army service culminated in George H.W. Bush naming Powell as the first black person to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, where he was confirmed unanimously.

Powell’s first big test came soon after he took office when the Gulf War began in 1990. As the nation’s highest-ranking military adviser he guided US forces through Operation Desert Storm.

After Clinton defeated Bush Sr. in 1992, Powell was widely seen as the favorite to run against the charismatic Democrat.

He opted not to run for office, however, telling CNN in 2007 that he ‘never found inside of me the internal passion that you’ve got to have to run for elected office.’

Powell retired from the military as a four-star general in 1993.

In his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell reflected on the significance of growing up in a Jamaican/West Indian home, compared to the African-American experience.

“West Indians were left more or less on their own. They did not have their individual dignity beat down for three hundred years, the fate of so many black American slaves and their ancestors,” he wrote.

Powell is survived by his wife Alma, and their three children Michael, Linda and Annemarie.

‘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. He was fully vaccinated. We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment. We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,’ the Powell family wrote on Facebook Monday.

Photo courtesy of Bachrach/Getty Images

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