He was born on April 5, 1937 in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants. Father Luther Powell was a foreman in the shipping department in the clothing district, and his mother, Maud Ariel McKoy, was a seamstress.
“Mine is the story of a black boy with no early promise from an immigrant family with limited means, who grew up in the South Bronx,” he wrote in 1995 in his autobiography “My American Journey.”
He grew up on Kelly Street in the Bronx and graduated from Morris High School. He was a mediocre student by his own admission and had an average Cs degree majoring in geology from City College of New York.
“Powell was raised by immigrant parents in a working-class neighborhood of New York’s South Bronx and never excelled in academia or track and field,” wrote Jeffrey J. Matthews in his 2019 book: Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot. “Nor did he display the extroverted qualities so often associated with aspiring young leaders.”
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But at City College, Powell enrolled in the ROTC program, which was characterized by camaraderie, discipline, and clearly defined goals. He joined the Pershing Rifles, a drilling team formed by World War I commander General John J. Pershing.
When he put on his first uniform, “I liked what I saw,” he wrote.
A ROTC training tour in North Carolina gave Powell his first glimpse into life outside of New York, where he was forced to use separate washrooms at gas stations.
Powell graduated from CCNY in June 1958 and was drafted into the Army as a lieutenant, the beginning of his 35-year military career.
He was one of more than 16,000 “advisors” sent to South Vietnam by President John F. Kennedy. A number of promotions led to the Pentagon and as military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who became its unofficial sponsor.
He later became the commander of the 5th Army Corps in Germany and later National Security Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
He rose to the rank of four-star general and became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. In this role he oversaw the US invasion of Panama and later the US invasion of Kuwait to drive the Iraqi army out in 1991.
His legacy was forever shattered when he joined the UN Security Council as Secretary of State in 2003 and advocated a US war on Iraq. He cited inaccurate information that Saddam Hussein was secretly hiding weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s claims that it did not have such weapons constituted “a web of lies,” he told the world panel.
Former President George W. Bush said Monday he and former first lady Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” by Powell’s death.
“He was a great official” and “widely respected domestically and internationally,” said Bush. “Most importantly, Colin was a family man and friend. Laura and I send our condolences to Alma and her children as they remember the life of a great man.”
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Meanwhile, Powell had a pen set on his desk that he won for a ROTC Drill Team competition.
CCNY later named a school after him, the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at 160 Convent Avenue.
Mayor Bill de Blasio called Powell “an absolutely classic New York story”.
“General Powell has served this nation with tremendous honor, but what we all feel as New Yorkers is that he was an example of the greatness of New York City,” he said. “Just an absolutely great example of the good, the talent, the ability that comes from the city … He was of course also a pioneer who proved to the world, showed the world that talent and ability comes in, all colors come in all races, comes in all genders, comes in everything. And he’s opened the doors to so many others so he’s someone we will miss dearly. We will especially miss him for showing the world what New York is City matters. Everyone here, everyone and everyone has the opportunity. We promote it, we respect it, we believe in every New Yorker. “
There are several other schools across the country named after Powell, including one in Union City, New Jersey, which Powell attended in 2013.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
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