Gen. Colin L. Powell joined other prominent black figures Monday in expressing grudging respect for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's success in staging a massive rally of black men in the nation's capital.
"I wish somebody else had thought of the idea of the 'Million Man March' rather than Minister Farrakhan," Powell said in an interview on "CBS This Morning."
"I deplore, I condemn, the racist and anti-Semitic expressions that Minister Farrakhan has made over the years," Powell said.
But now, he said, "we should try to find out what is positive in this, rather than just grind on the controversy as to who started it, who didn't."
Powell was among many black leaders who found themselves in the uncomfortable position of watching from the outside one of the most significant events in the black community in recent years.
Before the march, prominent leaders of mainstream black groups--including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and the National Baptist Convention--distanced themselves from the event, saying they would have nothing to do with Farrakhan.
Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a possible presidential candidate, said he was tempted to join the march because he liked the idea behind it and was enticed by the size of the crowd, but decided against it because Farrakhan was the organizer.
"I was concerned that my presence on the stage with Farrakhan might give him a level of credibility--more of a level of credibility than I would have liked to have seen," Powell said.
Powell compared Farrakhan to former Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman, whose taped racist remarks were played during the O.J. Simpson trial.
"Racism in any form is deplorable," Powell said. "We've come too far in this country; we cannot go back into the swamp of racism. And whether it comes from Minister Farrakhan or a Mark Fuhrman, it's the same thing."
But while Powell criticized Farrakhan, some people at the march said the general could use the minister's help.
While most speakers at the march focused on how far American society needs to go to rid itself of racism, Powell stressed how much progress the country has made.
"Let's not ignore how far we really have come in the course of one generation," Powell said. "In my own case, when somebody who couldn't sit at a lunch counter in the South is somebody who was able to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
But he conceded that a black boy growing up today in his old Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood would have trouble making the same steep rise.
"It would be much, much harder, and that's the problem," Powell said. This is why the "Million Man March" was a "good idea" that could become a catalyst to help the black community confront its deepest problems, including violence and the soaring out-of-wedlock birth rate, he said.
He credited Farrakhan with conceiving the idea for a march that has "sparked something in the African American community that says, 'we've got to get ourselves together, especially men. We have to be better fathers; we have to be better providers; we have to reconcile with each other; we have to begin solving our own problems."
His experience talking with black people across the country during his book tour makes Powell believe that the men who massed on the Mall will not leave as converts to the Nation of Islam, but with a new commitment to their families and their communities.
"What you're seeing in Washington today are hundreds of thousands of black men coming together not to celebrate Louis Farrakhan or to buy into his agenda or to speak in racist terms, but to begin to uplift black men and uplift African Americans to be part of an inclusive America," Powell said.