Colin L. Powell, who has been seeking a new public identity since he left the military a hero, sought to take a major step toward that goal here Saturday by confronting America’s touchiest issue--race.
Speaking at ceremonies marking the centennial of a monument to the black Civil War regiment whose bravery was celebrated by the Oscar-winning motion picture “Glory,” Powell declared: “This memorial speaks to us of our past, speaks to us of our present and reminds us of the continuing challenge that we face in the future.”
In a reference to his own achievements that stirred applause from the crowd of about 2,000, Powell said: “To my dying day I will never forget that I became chairman” of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because other black Americans “were willing to serve and shed their blood for their country knowing full well that their country would not serve them.”
As he worked on the speech earlier in the week, Powell told an aide, “I want this to be a speech about how far African Americans have come--and how far they have to go.”
That’s a towering task, but admirers and critics agree that it’s a challenge Powell must face if he is to fulfill his unique potential for influencing the country he has devoted his life to serving. Powell’s opportunity, as many see it, is broader than politics, where his ambitions have been sidetracked at least for the moment, and broader than his current chores as an advocate for volunteerism.
“I think he can be one of the most powerful cultural figures in the country if he wants to be,” said Republican political consultant Mike Murphy. A presidential campaign veteran, Murphy said he believes that cultural heroes such as Powell, who can inspire by their rhetoric and example, have more power to change national life for the better than “the people we elect, who ultimately pander to us anyway.”
But Murphy argues that for Powell to be effective, he needs to be willing to pick a fight. “He has operated in a generally positive but somewhat timid way,” Murphy said. “He could scold blacks about junk rap culture and whites about racism and have an impact on both communities.”
In some ways though, Powell’s role is easier among whites, who polls show hold him in higher esteem than any other African American because of his achievements in the military. In introducing him Saturday, Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld said Powell had assumed “iconic significance in our nation’s understanding of itself as a free society.”
Among blacks, however, the perspective on Powell is far more complex and is complicated by his renown. “Some people see his celebrity as a sign that things are going to change in a good way and take comfort,” said Randall Kennedy, a Harvard University law professor and black social critic. “On the other hand, some people will call Powell an exception who is being used as a way of putting a nice coating over a society that is tremendously flawed.”
For his part, Powell left little doubt Saturday that he feels more must be done to erase the impact of racism.
He acknowledged that opportunities for African Americans have increased dramatically since the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry went into battle in 1863 and also since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the civil rights revolution a century later.
“But we dare not believe that our work is done and that there are not still barriers to the dreams that these men . . . marched for and died for,” he warned. “Let us not pretend otherwise. Let us keep faith with them.”
Powell boosters are not hard to find here, as elsewhere in the country, including many youngsters in the crowd gathered in the midday sun in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse.
“He represents a tremendous role model,” said Sylvia McKinney, executive director of the Boston Museum of Afro-American History, which hosted a reception for Powell before his speech.
She conceded that Powell “is not standing on picket lines” championing controversial causes. But she said his influence greatly benefits African American children, particularly in the inner city, where some of them--as Powell remarked at an earlier event--"come to school on Monday weighing less than they did on Friday.”
“So if they have somebody they can look up to and it gives them spirit and hope, you can’t kick that away,” McKinney said.
But for some African Americans, the prestige Powell has gained in white society presents a problem. “In this polarized era, if you get somebody who is black and whom whites overwhelmingly support, it draws suspicion from blacks,” said University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters.
To his critics, Powell seems too eager to gain the favor of the white establishment. And that impression is not likely to be altered by Powell’s leadership of “America’s Promise: Alliance for Youth,” the follow-up organization to the recent summit on volunteerism. In that capacity, Powell needs the goodwill of big corporations in order to get pledges of money and services to bolster the efforts of volunteers.
To win over his doubters in the black community, Powell “has to identify himself with black concerns and has to take positions that are strongly felt in the black community,” Walters said.
As an example, he cited Powell’s forceful talk to the 1996 Republican National Convention, in which the retired general spoke out for affirmative action. It was a stand distinctly not popular at that convention, yet it won the cheers of the delegates.