Colin L. Powell (1937-2021) is one of the most respected figures of the past half century in the United States. Not only did he fulfill his own dreams, but he also fulfilled the aspirations of many others: he was the first Black American to be appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Secretary of State. His brilliant ability to lead makes him an incredible role model for young people who believe in a commitment to public service and civic engagement. His American Journey is an inspiration to the generations that have followed him.

Colin's photo

“A dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”

The journey ofa boy from theBronx begins

Luther and Maud Ariel

1920'sNew York

In the 1920s, the United States was experiencing an economic boom, making it a leading world power. Luther Powell and Maud Ariel McKoy, children of Jamaican farmers, emigrated to the US in search of work, Maud through New York and Luther through Philadelphia. Colin’s parents settled in Harlem. Luther was a shipping clerk and Maud Ariel worked as a seamstress.

The end of the decade brought with it the stock market crash of 1929.

Youngest Colin Powell


Colin Luther Powell, the youngest of Luther and Maud’s two children, was born in Harlem on April 5, 1937

At the time, the country was undergoing a recession, with a drop in production and increasing unemployment.The family soon moved to Hunts Point, a commercial and industrial hub in the South Bronx.

In this multicultural neighbourhood, teenager Colin learned some Spanish and Yiddish while working in a toy and baby furniture store owned by a Russian Jew.

The shop owner, Jay Sickser, told Colin something that he would never forget:

“[Y]ou’re a good worker, love having you in the store. But listen, you know, you can’t ever stay here. You have to get your education.”

Youngest Colin beside staircase
Youngest Colin at the School

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception; it is a prevailing attitude.”

A life-changingexperience atCity College

Civil rights protesting

1950'sAfter the Second World War, the United States began to prosper once again, but inequality persisted. Black Americans started protesting against segregation as part of the emerging civil rights movement.

U.S. R.O.T.C.


Colin was studying at Morris High School, a public school in the Bronx. In 1954, he enrolled at The City College of New York (CCNY).

Located in Harlem, CCNY was the first free academy of higher education in the United States, founded in 1847.

Although his major was in Geology, it was Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), aimed at preparing students to become officers in the U.S. Military, which made the greatest impact on his life.

It was there that he found his calling. Colin was impressed by the young men he saw donning the Army uniform.

Colin and students
Colin self portrait

“The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved.”

Colin ROTC


After graduating, he entered the Army as a second lieutenant.

He was first assigned to the 3rd Armored Division in Germany

A herois forged

60's and 70'sThe sixties were a time of great political and social upheaval.

Martin Luther King


The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.

John F. Kennedy


Democratic President John F. Kennedywas assassinated in Dallas.

The Vietnam War

1955 - 1975

The Vietnam War(1955 - 1975) was failing to make headway, causing a rise in anti-war protests.

Illustration for the movement

The counterculturemovement was also growing

Colin Powell returned from Germany to the United States in 1962

Arrow icon

A year later, at 24 years of age, he met the love of his life on a blind date. Alma Vivian Johnson was a young woman who had studied speech pathology and audiology, working with the deaf in Boston.

Alma Vivian Johnson

Colin and Alma were married in 1962. The loving couple had three children: Michael, Linda and Annemarie.

  • Colin and Alma wedding
  • Colin's family
Saigon (Vietnam)

Just months later, Colin was sent to Saigon (Vietnam) as a military advisor. Alma would always be his compass.


While on a reconnaissance mission in 1963, Powell was injured when he stepped on a booby trap.

Six years later, during his second tour of duty in Vietnam, he saved three of his men from the burning wreckage of their helicopter after a crash-landing.

Colin in Vietnam
Colin in Vietnam with a helicopter after a crash-landing

Throughout his career, he was awarded many of the United States’ most prestigious military and civilian honors

  • Distinguished Service MedalDistinguished Service Medal
  • Bronze Star MedalBronze Star Medal
  • Purple HeartPurple Heart
  • Army Commendation MedalArmy Commendation Medal
  • Presidential Medal of FreedomPresidential Medal of Freedom

For much of the early 1960s, Powell served in Fort Benning, GA. With his upbringing in a diverse Bronx neighborhood, he had not had much personal experience with racism until this time. He would frequently drive back and forth between his home in Alabama and Fort Benning. He recalled a night when he was tired and hungry and stopped at a hamburger joint. The waitress told him that the owners would not allow her to serve him and offered to hand him a hamburger out the back window. “Something snapped,” he would later recall. “’I’m not that hungry,’ I said, burning rubber as I backed out.”

Another time, he was stopped by an Alabama State Trooper who was handing out Goldwater bumper stickers.“He looked over the Volks, an alien vehicle in sixties Alabama. Strike one. He checked my license plate–New York State. Strike two. He spotted the LBJ sticker. Strike three. And a Black at the wheel. I had somehow managed to accumulate four strikes. He shook his head. ‘Boy, ’he said, ‘you ain’t smart enough to be around here. You better get going.’ Which I did quickly.”

“’I’m not that hungry”

In a 1992 interview with 60 Minutes, in answer to a question regarding the impact of affirmative action on his career, he looked back on that time: “I was helped in the early part of my career when I lived in the South and I could do things on an army post that you darn well better not think about doing off an army post. Was that equal opportunity? Was that affirmative action? Was that respect for human rights and making sure that everybody wearing a uniform had the opportunity to succeed? I think it was.”

At the beginning of the seventies, tthe conflict in South-East Asia had become critical. The USA ordered the invasion of Cambodia and in 1973 they withdrew from Vietnam.
Richard Nixon

Meanwhile, in 1972, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. President to visit the People’s Republic of China.


Colin was selected for a prestigious year-long White House Fellowship. This would prove to be a turning point.

In the course of that year, he met many people at the most senior levels of government who would become his mentors and champion him as he advanced in his career.

Front Whitehouse

Throughout the 1970s, he served in a wide range of positions throughout the US and around the world, including Commander, 1st Batallion, 32nd Infantry Division in Korea; Commander, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and Senior Military Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense in Washington, DC.

The 80'sOnward and upwards

Colin and Ronald Regan


Republican Ronald Regan became the 40th President of the United States.

Over the next several years, Powell held numerous command positions. In 1987, he returned to Washington to serve as President Regan National Security Advisor. In 1989, he became Commander in Chief of the U.S. Army Forces Command.

During this period, Powell played an important role in the negotiation of the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which in 1987 was signed by President Regan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a key figure in the opening of the USSR.

Negotiation of the INF
Colin on the Joint Chiefs of Staff


In 1989, President George H. W. Bush appointed General Powell Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the United States Armed Forces.

Colin Powell was the first and was the first and only Black American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; he was the also the youngest ever named to this position and the first graduate of ROTC, which had played such a formative role in his life during his time as a student at City College of New York.

“The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

Troops in KuwaitGeneral Powell

The 90's

In 1989, George H.W. Bush was sworn in as U.S. President. In August 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, which was a strategic ally of the USA. As Chairman of the Joints Chief, Powell played a pivotal role in the operation, known as Desert Storm. It was during this time that General Powell articulated a set of principles that he felt should determine whether military action should be taken by the U.S., including whether the action was vital to national security, had clearly attainable goals and a plausible exit strategy, and was supported by the American people and the international community.

This approach came to be known as the Powell Doctorine:

Military force should only be used

  1. When a vital national security interest is threatened
  2. When there is a clear and attainable objective
  3. When all non-violent means have been fully exhausted
  4. When the action is supported by the American people and the international community

Colin Powell was overseeing military operations in the Gulf War.


This period also marked a pivotal moment in African-American history. In 1992, one of the most controversial verdicts of the United States justice system was announced, when a jury cleared four Los Angeles police officers of the brutal beating of Rodney King, a Black taxi drive.

Social commitment

  • 1993

    Bill Clinton became the 42nd President of the United States

    Bill Clinton
  • Shortly after the Democratic candidate was sworn into office at the White House, Powell retired from the Army at 56 years of age as a four-star general after a 35+ year military career.

    General Powell in VirginiaRetirement day at Fort Myer, Virginia, September 30, 1993.
  • Colin's book1995

    Colin began his civilian career. It was during this time that he published his memoir, My American Journey (1995), which became a New York Times best seller and has been translated into languages around the world. He was now one of the most renowned and respected public figures in the United States—so much so that both Republicans and Democrats were interested in drafting him to run for President. Ultimately, he made the decision that he could better serve his country in other ways.

  • 1997

    Powell chaired the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, a summit designed in partnership with the five living Presidents (Clinton, Bush, Carter, Ford and Regan), which brought together thousands of leaders from across the country to make strategic investments in young people a top national priority. From this summit, the America’s Promise Alliance was born. Powell became the founding chairman of this non-profit designed to address the most urgent issues facing America’s children.

    He supported the launch of CCNY’s Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Servicewhich was created with a clear mission: to prepare new generations of publicly engaged leaders and to build a strong culture of civic engagement on CCNY’s campus

“He was taught as a soldier to solve problems. So he has views, but he’s not an ideologue. He has passion, but he’s not a fanatic. He’s first and foremost a problem-solver.”

[Describing himself in an interview in 2007 for the New York Times.]

The return ofan uprightsoldier

From the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil to the Iraq War

AIDS symbol


In 2001, Colin L. Powell was 64 years old when President George W. Bush appointed him U.S. Secretary of State to lead U.S. foreign policy. His nomination by Bush was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, making him the first Black American to hold the position.

At the beginning of his term, Powell emphasized reaffirming alliances throughout the world and also reforming the Department of State’s organizational culture, with an infusion of resources for personnel, IT, security, and facilities. He pushed the Administration to increase its commitment to the international fight against AIDS, and oversaw a doubling of development assistance funding

The bloodiest attack on American
Just 9 months after Powell assumed this position, on 11 September 2001, terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda, committed the bloodiest attack on American soil in modern history. Almost 3,000 people died and more than 25,000 were injured.


In February 2003, on behalf the Bush Administration, Powell presented to the UN the consensus of the combined U.S. intelligence community that supported the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and could produce more. With the support of Congress, the Administration moved quickly toward military action against Iraq, despite Powell’s advice that war should not begin until a large coalition of allies and a long-term occupation plan were in place. In 2004, some of the intelligence that Powell had been given to present to the UN in 2003 was found to be erroneous.


In November 2004, Powell announced his intention to resign at the end of Bush’s first term.

Colin Powell

“Great leaders inspire every follower at every level to internalize their purpose, and to understand that their purpose goes far beyond the mere details of their job. When everyone is united in purpose, a positive purpose that serves not only the organization but also, hopefully, the world beyond it, you have a winning team.”

An ElderStatesman

Colin Powell
Following his second retirement in 2005, he was one of the most respected people in the country, and leaders across the political spectrum sought his advice and opinions for the remainder of his life.


In 2008, as a private citizen, he expressed his support for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Speaking of Obama, he said:


Four years later, he published his second memoir, It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership

Colin's book


The City College of New York founded the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership; General Powell served as the Chairman of its Board of Visitors until his death.

Colin Powell School logo
Colin Powell and students
The School’s leaders remember how Powell never missed a graduationand always took the time to shake the hand of every graduating student. He chaired the Board of Visitors of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at his alma mater, City College of New York (CCNY), and never missed a board meeting. Another dozen primary and secondary schools also bear his name.
Graduation day

During Powell’s lifetime, he received numerous awards and medals in recognition of his service and leadership. His civil awards include two Presidential Medals of Freedom, the President’s Citizens Medal, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Secretary of Energy Distinguished Service Medal. In addition, he received awards from more than two dozen countries, including a French Legion of Honor and an honorary knighthood bestowed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Among the many U.S. Military awards and decorations Powell received were the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Army Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Soldier’s Medal, Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

  • Powell with England’s QueenGeneral and Mrs. Powell with England’s Queen Elizabeth II
  • Defense service awardDefense service award
  • Presidential medal of FreedomPresidential medal of Freedom with President George H.W. Bush
  • Powell received the awardPowell received the award from Queen Elizabeth II
  • Congressional Gold MedalCongressional Gold Medal
  • Smithsonian National MuseumSmithsonian National Museum of American History's ''Great Americans'' 2016

“Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.”


Throughout his 84 years, Colin L. Powell proved himself to be an inspirational character. He’s been commended for his:

humilityintegritydignityloyaltyoptimismcharismapragmatismleadershipcommon sensebrilliancehumor

Powell’s13 Rules of leadership

Colin Powell
  1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.
  2. Get mad, then get over it
  3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.
  4. It can be done!
  5. Be careful what you choose. You may get it.
  6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.
  7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.
  8. Check small things.
  9. Share credit.
  10. Remain calm. Be kind.
  11. Have a vision. Be demanding.
  12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.
  13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Colin Luther Powell was born in New York on 5 April 1937, and died on 18 October 2021, from Covid-19 complications in Bethesda, Maryland.

President Joseph R. Biden

Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else—in uniform and out—and it earned him the universal respect of the American people.” President Joseph R. Biden

George W. Bush

He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam. Many Presidents relied on General Powell's counsel and experience. He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom—twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend.” Former President George W. Bush

Antony Blinken

Secretary Powell was beloved here at the State Department at C Street and at our embassies and consulates around the world. He gave the State Department the very best of his leadership, his experience, his patriotism. He gave us his decency and the State Department loved him for it. He wanted to hear from everyone. He walked around the building, dropping into offices unannounced, asking what people needed, making sure they knew he was counting on them. He treated people the way he expected them to treat each other, and he made sure that they knew he would always have their back. The result was that his people would walk through walls for him.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Tony Blair

Colin was a towering figure in American military and political leadership over many years, someone of immense capability and integrity, a hugely likeable and warm personality and a great companion, with a lovely and self-deprecating sense of humor. His life stands as a testament not only to dedicated public service but also a strong belief in willingness to work across partisan division in the interests of his country.” Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Madeleine Albright

As I grew to know him, I came to view Colin Powell as a figure who almost transcended time. For his virtues were Homeric: honesty, dignity, loyalty, and an unshakable commitment to his calling and word.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

“Humans are not by nature solitary. They need to connect with other human beings to share dreams and fears, to lean on each other, to enhance each other.”

At campus