Paving the Way: Colin Powell’s Career and Legacy

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Colin Powell, former secretary of state and at one time the highest-ranking Black person in the nation, passed away on Monday, October 18 from complications of COVID-19 at the age of 84. Despite being fully vaccinated, Powell’s fight with multiple myeloma had significantly weakened his immune system. Recognized as a prominent Black leader during the 1990s and early 2000s, Powell’s career included milestone titles, numerous awards and accolades, as well as controversy. His passing drew responses of grief from former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and many other American leaders.

portrait of Colin Powell

Rise to the Top

Powell was born on April 5, 1937, in Harlem and grew up in the South Bronx with his parents, both immigrants from Jamaica. He graduated from City College of New York, where he participated in the ROTC program and attained top rank of cadet colonel. He served in the army for 35 years, including two tours in Vietnam, eventually becoming a four-star general.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Powell became the first Black National Security Advisor.[1]Ronald Reagan, Statement on the Revitalization of the Machine Tool Industry – December 16, 1986, 1986 Pub. Paper 1632 (1986). This document is located in the U.S. Presidential Library. He then became the youngest and first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,[2]Colin L. Powell, U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead, 71 FOREIGN AFF. 32 (1992). This document is located in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library. the highest military position in the Department of Defense. During his career, Powell oversaw the invasion of Panama, the First Gulf War—he received a Congressional Gold Medal for his leadership in Operation Desert Storm[3]To authorize the President to award a gold medal on behalf of the Congress to General Colin L. Powell, and to provide for the production of bronze duplicates of such medal for sale to the public., Public Law 102-33, 102 Congress. 105 Stat. 177 … Continue reading—and the humanitarian intervention in Somalia.

Due to his popularity, many thought that Powell would eventually become the first Black president. However, he declined to run and instead endorsed George W. Bush in 2000. Under Bush, Powell was selected as the first Black Secretary of State,[4]225 , 37#4. This document is located in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library. becoming the highest-ranking Black public official in American history until Barack Obama’s presidency.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. armed forces, I share the responsibility for America’s security. I share it with the president and commander in chief, with the secretary of defense and with the magnificent men and women—volunteers all—of America’s armed forces. In truth, we share it also with every citizen of the nation, for that is one of the unique aspects of America; while many other nations constantly lay claim to “peoples’ armies,” our nation actually has one.
Colin Powell

Controversy and Aftermath

Originally against invading Iraq, Powell changed his mind after 9/11. He presented evidence from U.S. intelligence to the United Nations suggesting that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction,[5]From the Secretary-General: Only a Collective, Multilateral Approach Can Make the World a Safer Place, 40 U.N. Chron. 4 (2003). This document is located in HeinOnline’s United Nations Law Collection. which highly influenced public opinion and drew support for the Iraq War. However, this evidence was later proven to be inaccurate, and Powell’s reputation suffered. He eventually resigned as Secretary of State shortly after Bush was reelected.

Powell wrote two books, one an autobiography titled My American Journey published in 1995, and another called It Worked for Me, Lessons in Life and Leadership, released in 2012. He later became a public speaker, and from 2005 until his death he was serving as a strategic advisor with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Over the course of his career, Powell earned the Congressional Gold Medal, a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (twice), as well as several other top honors.

Although he was a Republican, 2008 saw Powell endorsing Barack Obama’s White House candidacy. He also voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. After the U.S. Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021,[6]Examining the U.S. Capitol Attack: A Review of the Security, Planning, and Response Failures on January 6: Staff Report (2021). This document is located in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database. Powell announced that he would no longer belong to the Republican Party. “I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican. I’m not a fellow of anything right now,” he told CNN. “I’m just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat throughout my entire career. And right now, I’m just watching my country and not concerned with parties.”

Explore Powell’s Life and Legacy with HeinOnline

Within the extensive realm of HeinOnline, users can find a wealth of information regarding Colin Powell. A full search across all available databases for “Colin Powell” OR “Colin L. Powell” produces more than 13,000 results:

Screenshot of HeinOnline search for Colin Powell

In addition, with Powell’s career-long involvement in the United States military, HeinOnline’s Military and Government database is a great place to uncover primary and secondary sources. This collection alone draws nearly 600 search results:

Screenshot of Military and Government database in HeinOnline

Powell also utilized his extensive experience to pen several articles and papers for various legal journals. You can find his author profile page on HeinOnline by searching for his name using the author option in the drop-down menu for the one-box search.

Screenshot of author search

From the results page, select Powell’s hyperlinked name to be directed to his author profile page.

Screenshot of Colin Powell's author profile page in HeinOnline

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HeinOnline Sources

HeinOnline Sources
1 Ronald Reagan, Statement on the Revitalization of the Machine Tool Industry – December 16, 1986, 1986 Pub. Paper 1632 (1986). This document is located in the U.S. Presidential Library.
2 Colin L. Powell, U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead, 71 FOREIGN AFF. 32 (1992). This document is located in HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library.
3 To authorize the President to award a gold medal on behalf of the Congress to General Colin L. Powell, and to provide for the production of bronze duplicates of such medal for sale to the public., Public Law 102-33, 102 Congress. 105 Stat. 177 (1991). This document is located in HeinOnline’s Session Laws Library.
4 225 , 37#4. This document is located in HeinOnline’s Federal Register Library.
5 From the Secretary-General: Only a Collective, Multilateral Approach Can Make the World a Safer Place, 40 U.N. Chron. 4 (2003). This document is located in HeinOnline’s United Nations Law Collection.
6 Examining the U.S. Capitol Attack: A Review of the Security, Planning, and Response Failures on January 6: Staff Report (2021). This document is located in HeinOnline’s U.S. Congressional Documents database.
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