Harlem-native Colin Powell, former Joint Chiefs chair and Secretary of State, dead from COVID-19 complications at 84

General Colin Powell, the Harlem native who helped lead the U.S. into battle as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later as Secretary of State, has died at the age of 84 from complications related to COVID-19, his family announced Monday.

Powell, who had been fully vaccinated but also battling multiple myeloma, succumbed to the virus while undergoing treatment at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington, according to a statement left by the Powell family on the secretary’s Facebook page. 

“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment,” the family said in its statement. “We have lost a remarkable man, a loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”

During his Monday morning briefing, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke on behalf of New Yorkers in praising Powell’s career in public service, remarking that he embodied the best of New York City.

“He’s just an absolute great example of the good, the talent, the ability that comes out of this city, but he took it to the next level,” de Blasio said. “He was a great leader, he served his country profoundly. He also, of course, was a trail-blazer, showing the world that accountability comes in all colors, races, genders, everything. He opened the door for so many others. He’s someone we’re going to miss a lot.”

Governor Kathy Hochul, in an afternoon statement, ordered all flags across the state at half-mast through Oct. 22 in Powell’s honor.

“I am saddened by the passing of General Colin Powell, a New Yorker and son of immigrants who rose to the height of American public service during a distinguished career,” Hochul said. “As the first Black person to serve as National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State after graduating from the City University of New York, General Powell blazed a path forward for others to follow throughout his decades of service to the United States.

President Joe Biden lauded Powell as having “embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat” and being “committed to our nation’s strength and security above all.”

“The son of immigrants, born in New York City, raised in Harlem and the South Bronx, a graduate of the City College of New York, he rose to the highest ranks of the United States military and to advise four presidents,” Biden said in a statement. “He believed in the promise of America because he lived it. And he devoted much of his life to making that promise a reality for so many others.”

Born in Harlem in 1937 and later raised in the South Bronx, Powell joined the U.S. Army in 1958 upon graduation from City College, where he initially enlisted in the school’s ROTC. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and continued rising through the ranks, eventually attaining the status of four-star general.

Powell came to national prominence in October 1989, when then-President George H.W. Bush appointed him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior ranking status in the U.S. military, and the first African American ever to hold the post. His leadership was particularly important 18 months later during Operation Desert Storm, the allied effort to drive Iraqi forces out of invaded Kuwait.

The success of Operation Desert Storm, combined with his moderate views on war, made him a popular figure on both sides of the aisle. At numerous points, his name had been floated by both Democrats and Republicans as a possible presidential candidate, but Powell never sought the office.

Powell served as joint chiefs chair through September 1993, when he resigned after clashes with members of the Clinton administration. After joining the private sector, he re-entered public service in 2001 as Secretary of State to President George W. Bush.

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led the Bush 43 Administration to launch the “war on terror,” first against Afghanistan — but the focus later shifted to Iraq, which the administration claimed harbored terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. 

Powell famously appeared before the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 to make the U.S. case for war against Iraq, displaying evidence that suggested Iraq, under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, had amassed biological weapons and was rapidly developing nuclear arms.

Though Powell’s appearance galvanized the case for the long war in Iraq launched that March, the report itself contained serious flaws based on old data and information. Powell came to regret it, saying in a 2005 interview with Barbara Walters that it was a “blot” that will “always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.” Even so, he repeatedly maintained in other interviews his support of the war itself. 

After his stint as Secretary of State, Powell returned to private life in 2005, but remained somewhat active in politics. A Republican, Powell endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in 2008, helping the Illinois senator win election as the nation’s first Black president.

Following the Jan. 6 coup attempt on the U.S. Capitol by an angry mob of Trump supporters, Powell announced he had left the Republican Party and had become an independent.

Powell is survived by his wife of 59 years, Alma Johnson, and their children Michael, Linda and Annemarie.