A patriot died Monday. A man who proudly said, “I’m an American, first and foremost,” lived a life of integrity that stayed true to his statement. Colin Powell, 84, was extraordinary because he did something that we should all expect. Powell put country ahead of politics.
With Powell’s death Monday from COVID-19 complications amid his battle with cancer comes the loss of an important voice of reason for the Republican Party. His death is a loss to the country and the Black community. Powell was a trailblazer. He was the first Black secretary of State as well as the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under former President George H.W. Bush, and the first Black national security adviser, under former President Ronald Reagan. He was a retired four-star general. Even when the Black community didn’t agree with Powell, he was respected.
Although Powell eventually renounced the Republican Party, at one time he was a very loyal member. Today the term Black Republican might seem like an oxymoron for some, but Powell was significant in reminding the country that Black Americans are not monolithic in our thinking. He followed his conscience instead of his ambitions. Despite Powell’s commitment to the Republican Party, he exercised independent judgment when he saw the party heading in a dangerous direction. Interestingly, Powell’s wake-up call came the same time as my own.
Heading for the exit
Over a decade ago, I viewed myself as Republican-leaning. In Texas, state judges are elected, so at the beginning of my career all of the Black judges were also Black Republicans. During that time, the agenda and rhetoric of the Republican Party was more palatable. Besides, in Texas, many tried to conflate the Republican Party and Christian faith in an unholy union.
I have voted in Republican primaries and attended Republican events. From my perspective, there was always a current of racism in the party, but it did not define the party. Rather, the party was defined by conservative principles like fiscal responsibility, limited government and values. The idea of a political party embracing Christian values appealed to a young girl who grew up in the buckle of the Bible belt of Nashville, Tennessee. I have always been moderate. I still am. My decision to turn away from the Republican Party and not look back happened around the same time as Powell’s decision to endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama for president.
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In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Fairly soon after the announcements, I heard the racist dog whistles. One that I remember in particular was Palin's accusation that Obama was “palling around with terrorists.” I was incensed. At the time, my husband and I were both undecided. That one polarizing comment was significant because it signaled that it was more important to energize the part of the party that had been lurking in the shadows. Of course, most people committed to the Republican Party are not racist; however, the elevation of racists and narrow-minded ideas sent a clear message that it was time for me to head to the door.
Country before politics
Powell took a stand. On Oct. 19, 2008, Powell announced on "Meet the Press" that he would be voting for Obama. While most people focused on the endorsement, his remarks about the direction the GOP was going in was nothing short of prophetic. Powell expressed concerns about the approach of the Republican Party "becom(ing) narrower and narrower" and the divisive campaigning that tried to casts Obama as a Muslim with connections to terrorism.
As Powell explained, the problem was not just that the claim was false, but the suggestion that there was something wrong with being a Muslim: "The really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America."
The 2008 election was not the only time Powell put the country ahead of politics. Powell would go on to back Obama a second time and President Joe Biden. In 2013, Powell continued to call out the party for its "dark vein of intolerance." He was vocal in his disgust over the Jan. 6 insurrection and announced that he would no longer consider himself a Republican.
Sometimes being truly committed to something means having the courage to speak out. At a time when we’ve witnessed Republican politicians criticize Donald Trump before he became president and then change course to become part of his fan club, Powell’s integrity was extraordinary. He truly put his loyalty to our republic ahead of his loyalty of party. May his recent passing remind us of that courage and inspire us all to do the same so we can fulfill the aspiration of being Americans first.
Njeri Mathis Rutledge, a professor of law at South Texas College of Law Houston and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is a former prosecuting attorney, a wife and a mother. She graduated from Spelman College and Harvard Law School. Follow her on Twitter: @NjeriRutledge
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colin Powell and Black Republicans: Trailblazer put country over party