Colin Powell on Civil Rights

Secretary of State (Pres. Bush Cabinet)


We have not yet fully accomplished MLK's dream

Q: You said the "I Have a Dream" speech held up a mirror for all Americans to look deeply into the spirit and soul of our country. If that same mirror were held up today, what do you think it would show?

POWELL: I think it would show that enormous progress has been made. African-Americans and other minorities have moved to the top of every institution in American society, whether it's politics in the form of the president; or in the military; or in finance, or in corporate America, in media America. And we should be so proud of our accomplishments. But at the same time, that mirror should show us that there are still problems in this country, that there is still racial bias that exists in certain parts of our country. So I would say--and if Dr. King was here, I'm quite sure he would say--congratulations on all the progress that has been made, but let's keep going, the dream is not fully achieved yet.

Source: CBS Face the Nation 2013 series: 2016 presidential hopefuls , Aug 25, 2013

1993: Fought openly gay service in military

During the campaign, Clinton had endorsed permitting gays to serve openly in the military. The president-elect indicated that he intended to issue this executive order as one of his 1st acts in the White House.

The incoming administration found itself under withering attack from the active-duty military, led by its highest-ranking officer, General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and (according to polls) the nation's most admired African American.

It quickly became evident that if Clinton went through with the executive order, he would be choosing to begin his new administration with a high-profile battle against a Democratic-controlled Congress, and he would be standing with a distinct minority of the electorate. Much to the chagrin of his numerous backers in the gay-rights movement, he compromised by accepting a congressional policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" regarding current members of the armed forces.

Source: The Case for Polarized Politics, by Jeff Bell, p. 37 , Mar 6, 2012

Suggested don't ask don't tell compromise

Powell passionately opposed the proposed policy to allow openly gay people to serve. Skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human characteristics. Eventually Powell and Clinton worked toward a compromise. "We could stop asking about sexual orientation when people enlist." Thus was born the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Source: A Political Biography by Christopher O'Sullivan, p.105-106 , Nov 20, 2010

GOP must reach out more to minority communities

Colin Powell delivered a stinging criticism yesterday of the Republicans’ record on race. Gen. Powell challenged the GOP convention delegates to live up to their new language of conciliation.

Powell implored Republicans to “follow Governor Bush’s lead and reach out to minority communities.” Although the conservative disagreed vigorously with Gen. Powell’s words, they realized that his comments were aimed not at the true believers in the hall but at the “swing” voters whose support Bush needs.

Source: Toby Harnden, the London Telegraph , Aug 2, 2000

Inclusion even if you don’t believe in affirmative action

Q: This [GOP] crowd was cheering you when you said you should support affirmative action. This party has rejected it.

A: I wasn’t arguing affirmative action. I was arguing inclusion. I used affirmative action as an example of the mistrust that exists in the black community. It leaves a taste in the black community that says, are you serious about me or are you using me as a punching bag? Bush says he wants to be an inclusive president. I was saying, you’ve got to get behind him.

Q: You said this commitment, this openness to minorities, needs to be a sustained effort every day for real, you said.

A: By “for real,” I meant we have to get rid of the old Southern strategy of 25 years ago of pandering to certain constituencies at the expense of minorities. We have to make sure that is a consistent piece of our strategy and that we are working on it all the time, not just once every four years have an event. I don’t want just the image of inclusiveness but policies that go to inclusiveness.

Source: ABCnews.com , Aug 1, 2000

Overcome black criticism by reaching out “for real”

Recently, Gov. Bush addressed the annual meeting of the NAACP. He spoke the truth to the delegates when he said that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln. I know that with all his heart, Gov. Bush wants the Republican Party to wear that mantle again.

He knows that that mantle will not simply be handed over, that it will have to be earned. The party must follow the governor’s lead in reaching out to minority communities and particularly the African-American community. And not just during an election year campaign. My friends, if we’re serious about this it has to be a sustained effort, it must be every day, and it must be for real. The party must listen to and speak with all leaders of the black community, regardless of political affiliation or philosophy. Overcoming the cynicism and mistrust that exists in the black community, and raising up that mantle of Lincoln, is about more than just winning votes, it is about giving all minorities a competitive choice.

Source: Speech at the Republican convention , Jul 30, 2000

Affirmative action gives minorities a competitive choice

We must understand the cynicism that is created in the black community when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it’s affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests. It doesn’t work. You can’t make that case.

Overcoming the cynicism and mistrust that exists, and raising up that mantle of Lincoln, is about more -- it’s much more about than just winning votes, it is about giving all minorities a competitive choice. They deserve that choice. And if we give them that choice, it will be good for our party. But above all, it will be good for America, and we need to work to give them that choice. Good for America -- that must be the measure for all that we do -- whether it’s economic policy or military strategy or seeing what we can do to make our American family more inclusive.

Source: Speech at the Republican convention , Jul 30, 2000

No anti-flag-burning amendment

We are rightfully outraged when anyone attacks or desecrates our flag. They may be destroying a piece of cloth, but they do no damage to our system of freedom which tolerates such desecration. I really don’t want to amend the Constitution to prosecute someone for foolishly desecrating their own property. We should condemn them and pity them instead.

I understand the powerful sentiment in state legislatures for such an amendment. I feel the same sense of outrage. But I step back from amending the Constitution to relieve that outrage. The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous. I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants.

Finally, I shudder to think of the legal morass we will create trying to implement the body of law that will emerge from such an amendment. I would not vote for the proposed amendment.

Source: Letter to Senator Patrick Leahy , May 18, 1999

Diversity over discrimination; it won’t go away by itself

The Republican party must always be the party of inclusion. It is our diversity that has made this nation strong. Yet our diversity has sadly, throughout our history, been the source of discrimination. Discrimination that we must rip out branch and root. It is our party, the party of Lincoln, that must always stand for equal rights and fair opportunity for all. And where discrimination still exists or where the scars of past discrimination contaminate the present, we must not close our eyes to it, declare a level playing field, and hope it will go away by itself. It did not in the past. It will not in the future. Let the party of Lincoln be in the forefront, leading the crusade, not only to cut off and kill discrimination,-- but to open every avenue of educational and economic opportunity to those who are still denied access because of their race, ethnic background or gender.
Source: Speech to the Republican National Convention , Aug 12, 1996

Gays in military is a privacy issue, nothing else

Powell feels that an open statement of sexual preference in the military would be a problem. "I know there are gays serving in the military, and serving well. We ask them to make an additional sacrifice beyond the other sacrifices you have to make in the military service. We ask them to keep their sexual orientation a private matter. Military society is unlike any other part of American society. We tell you who to room with, and in the confines of barracks life, ship life, and military academy life, we thought that the presence of open homosexuality stated as a preference would be difficult, considering that we have very, very young people in the military. It's always going to be there. In the last few years we've cleaned out all the old shibboleths about 'they're security risks.' That's just not the case any more It's an issue of privacy." Powell insists that these views are shared by all the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all the commanders, chaplains, and NCOs of the armed forces around the world.
Source: Powell & the American Dream, by Cummings&Rudnicki, p. 22-23 , Nov 1, 1995

West Indian blacks' success: less slavery & more education

Powell observes that "American blacks sometimes regard Americans of West Indian origin as uppity and arrogant. The feeling, I imagine, grows out of an impressive record of accomplishment by West Indians." By way of tracing that success, Powell cites the British ending slavery in the Caribbean in 1833, a generation before America followed suit. Also, the British stewardship had been by colonial rather than by home rule, meaning that they had been largely absentee landlords, leaving the West Indians pretty much on their own. "Their lives were hard but they did not experience the crippling paternalism of the American plantation system, with white masters controlling every waking moment of a slave's life. After the British ended slavery, they told my ancestors that they were now British citizens with all the rights of any subject of the crown. That was an exaggeration: still, the British did establish good schools and made attendance mandatory."
Source: Powell & the American Dream, by Cummings&Rudnicki, p. 64-65 , Nov 1, 1995

Army offered best opportunity for young blacks

[In 1961, the 3 years that Powell signed on for in the army] were over and Powell had come home for a visit. Leave the army? It was the farthest thing from his mind.

As Powell saw it, "I was in a profession that would allow me to go as far as my talents would take me. And for a black, no other avenue in American society offered so much opportunity. But nothing counted so much as the fact that I loved what I was doing. And so, much to my family's bewilderment, I told them I was not coming home."

Source: Powell & the American Dream, by Cummings&Rudnicki, p. 99-100 , Nov 1, 1995

Didn’t attend Million Man March, but respects it

Colin Powell spent the day promoting his book, My American Journey, rather than attending the Million Man March in Washington. The decision not to attend, he said, had been “a tricky issue.” Powell joined other prominent black figures in expressing grudging respect for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s success in staging the rally. But he said: “I wish somebody else had thought of the idea of the Million Man March rather than Minister Farrakhan. I deplore, I condemn the racist and anti-Semitic expressions that Minister Farrakhan has made over the years.“

Powell 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. 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.“ He asserted that ”there’s not going to be one single leader for all African Americans.“

Source: Detroit News , Oct 17, 1995

Wants active government in protecting civil rights

I want the government to be vigorous and active in ensuring the protections of the Constitution to all Americans. Our Constitution and our national conscience demand that every American be accorded dignity and respect, receive the same treatment under the law, and enjoy equal opportunity. The hard-won civil rights legislation of the 1960s, which I benefited from, was fought for by presently derided liberals, over the opposition of those hiding behind transparent arguments of “states’ rights.”
Source: My American Journey, by Colin Powell, p. 591 , Jan 1, 1995

Equal opportunity without preferential treatment

Equal rights & equal opportunity mean just that. They do not mean preferential treatment. If affirmative action means programs that provide equal opportunity, then I am all for it. If it leads to preferential treatment or helps those that no longer need help, I am opposed. I benefited from equal opportunity and affirmative action in the Army, but I was not shown preference. The Army made sure that performance would be the only measure of advancement. When equal performance does not result in equal advancement, then something is wrong with the system, and our leaders have an obligation to fix it. If a history of discrimination has made it difficult for certain Americans to meet standards, it is only fair to provide temporary means to help them catch up and compete on equal terms. Affirmative action in the best sense promotes equal consideration, not reverse discrimination. Discrimination “for” one group means, inevitably, discrimination “against” another; and all discrimination is offensive.
Source: My American Journey, by Colin Powell, p. 591-2 , Jan 1, 1995

Urged reconciliation in L.A. Rodney King riots

[In May 1992], I watched the news on the riot in LA triggered by the acquittal of four policemen charged with beating Rodney King. No fair-minded person seeing the now-famous videotape could deny that he had been the victim of excessive police force. The not-guilty verdict ignited rage in the black community.

I was asked to look over Pres. Bush’s speech scheduled for that evening. I read it with dismay. I thought the tone was all wrong. Yes, the rioting was criminal, and law & order had to be restored. But the violence had not incubated in isolation; it had deep social roots. The speech, as it stood, recognized only the former and ignored the latter. I saw the fingerprints of the far right all over the draft.

[I urged Bush’s staff] to “do the law-and-order bit. But there’s language here that’s only going to fan the flames.” Even Rodney King, I pointed out, was preaching racial reconciliation: “Can we all get along?” Bush’s speech reflected that; I felt I had earned my pay that afternoon.

Source: My American Journey, by Colin Powell, p. 537-8 , Jan 1, 1995

Skin color is not behavioral; sexual orientation is

[In testimony before Congress on gays in the military], I said, “I think it would be prejudicial to good order and discipline to try to integrate gays and lesbians in the current military structure.” Congresswoman Pat Schroeder quoted a 1942 government report and claimed that the same arguments used then against racial integration in the military were being used against gays today.

She had her logic wrong. I responded, “Skin color is a benign, nonbehavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument.

The linking of gay rights and the civil rights movement got a mixed reaction in the African-American community. The Congressional Black Caucus favored removing the ban on homosexuals in the armed services. But other leaders were telling me that they resented having the civil rights crusade hijacked by the gay community for its ends.

Source: My American Journey, by Colin Powell, p. 533 , Jan 1, 1995

Other candidates on Civil Rights: Colin Powell on other issues:
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Bill Clinton (D,1993-2001)
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Ronald Reagan (R,1981-1989)
Jimmy Carter (D,1977-1981)
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Richard Nixon (R,1969-1974)
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Page last updated: Oct 26, 2021