Colin L. Powell, Black and ROTC | Inquirer Opinion

Colin L. Powell, Black and ROTC

/ 04:05 AM November 29, 2021

In the 1996 US presidential election campaign, the incumbent President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was running for re-election against Republican senator Bob Dole. Hovering in the background was a 58- year-old African American who was being touted as possibly America’s first black president. A White House official was reported saying, “If Powell runs, we’re dead.” In a Time/CNN poll, nearly a third of the voters said they would vote for Colin Powell in a three-way race against Clinton and Dole. The poll also showed that if Powell was the GOP nominee, he would defeat Clinton, and if Powell was Dole’s vice presidential running mate, this ticket would beat Clinton and Gore.

Colin Luther Powell was born in New York in April 1937, the younger of two children of Jamaican immigrants. He entered the City College of New York (CCNY) mainly because it was a public school with annual tuition at $10. At that time, CNNY had the largest ROTC contingent in America and he decided to join the program. After graduating with a “Distinguished Military Graduate” award he was commissioned a regular officer in the Army. And that was the start of a long and distinguished career in uniform.


In 1972, he applied for a White House Fellowship open to young professionals. In a field of over a thousand applicants, he was one of 33 finalists and in the end, one of two African Americans chosen for the positions. Here was the start of the network that would greatly influence his career. After one field assignment where he was rated as one of the best battalion commanders, he was recommended for promotion to brigadier general “as quick as the law would allow.” The first star came in June 1979; the second, four years later; and the third, in 1986 when he took command of the V Corps in Germany. He began his career commanding 40 troops, and now he was head of 75,000.

In November 1987 as a lieutenant general, he was chosen as national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan, the first Black to be appointed to this position. As columnist Carl Rowan put it, “To understand the significance of Powell’s elevation to this extremely difficult and demanding post, you must realize that only a generation ago it was an unwritten rule in foreign affairs that blacks could serve only as ambassador to Liberia or minister to the Canary Islands.” Incidentally, the first black ambassador to the Philippines was Harry K. Thomas Jr., appointed in 2009.


In October 1989, after he got his fourth star, Powell was appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George H.W. Bush, the first Black, the first ROTC product, and the youngest ever. In assuming this post, he was jumped over 14 other senior generals. On the day of his nomination, he was required to take a drug test by urinalysis in accordance with Army regulations.

Barely two months after his appointment he was confronted with a crisis situation requiring skill and sound judgment. A coup attempt was underway in the Philippines. In his book “The Commanders,” Bob Woodward describes how Powell handled the delicate problem involving an old ally. Powell was concerned that the request to bomb rebel positions by President Corazon Aquino or Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos lacked precision and crispness. No one seemed to have a clear idea how to go about responding to the Philippine request.

Powell laid out the following guidelines: “First rule: US pilots were to fly over captured airbases and to demonstrate hostile intent; in other words, to buzz the shit out of the rebel T-28s on the ground. Second, if the T-28s begin to taxi on the runway, the US pilots were to shoot in front of them—the classic warning shot across the bow. Third, if at any point rebel aircraft took off, US pilots were to shoot the planes down.” These recommendations were flashed to President Bush who was on board Air Force One, en route to Malta. They were approved and the F-4s from Clark Air Base were immediately launched, bringing the coup to an end.

In January 2001, Powell was appointed secretary of state by President George W. Bush, the first Black to occupy the highest position in the field of foreign relations of the country.

Last month, Gen. Colin Powell passed away at age 84. Barack Obama would be the first Black to become president of the United States but Colin Powell and others before him cleared the way through their exceptional services to the nation.

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TAGS: Colin L. Powell, Ramon J. Farolan, Reveille, ROTC
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