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If you like Colin Powell's story, you might also like:
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Colin Powell
Colin Powell
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Colin Powell Interview

Former Secretary of State, United States of America

May 23, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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  Colin Powell

What do you think are the most important documents of this century?

Colin Powell: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the First and Second Inaugural Addresses of Thomas Jefferson are my four favorite documents. The Emancipation Proclamation, and following that, the Gettysburg Address, which was essentially a restatement of the Constitution and the Declaration. But coming into this century and broadening it, I would just give you one that you're going to find surprising, and that is the Helsinki Final Act, 1975, which was the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It was as a result of one of these international negotiations. President Ford, in one of the more historic acts of this century, but in one of the more underappreciated acts of this century, going against domestic political opposition, signed the Helsinki Final Act, which essentially said there are universal rights of men and women. In order to get the Soviets to also sign that, we had to make some accommodations with respect to we shouldn't change borders. Some people said, "Aha! You're validating Soviet occupation of the Eastern European countries." Well, they were there. We didn't validate them, we still argued against it. But I believe that getting the Soviets to agree to that was a poison pill that they took that helped bring about the end of the Cold War and the demise of this evil empire. Acknowledging that men and women, no matter where they are, no matter what government they are under, have certain universal rights.

Colin Powell Interview Photo
I go back to the Declaration, because that's where we got it from: "All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." We sometimes forget the phrase that comes after that: "Governments are instituted among men to secure these rights." That could set me off on a discussion of affirmative action and other things, as well as what happened after the Helsinki Final Act. But the role of government is to secure the universal rights of men and women.

Does that include affirmative action?

Colin Powell: Yes, in my judgment.

The Declaration and the Constitution, which I consider just absolutely marvelous, profound documents. They didn't apply to people who were black, and that's the truth. In fact, the Constitution was used as a means of suppressing blacks. In the Dred Scott Decision, the Supreme Court said that a human being can be property if they're black, and only if they're black. You can't be property if you're white. If you're black, you can be property and returned to an owner. That was done by the Supreme Court as a matter of constitutional law, they based it on the Constitution.

Colin Powell Interview Photo
Plessy vs. Fergusson, in 1896, sanctioned separation on the basis of color. As long as you treat the races equally, then you can separate them. But the whole reason to separate them was to treat them unequally. It essentially validated Jim Crow segregation, disenfranchisement of an entire group of people who were black, giving them no economic opportunity. "Don't educate them. Continue to treat them as tenth class citizens." And it rested on the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, which was founded on the Constitution. And that continued up to my lifetime.

So in 1963 when I came home from Vietnam, having served my nation, having sworn an oath to the Constitution to serve my nation, I came home and was denied access to restaurants and refused service in hotels and motels. If my skin was white, or if I could shine it up a little more than it is and put a hat on my head so my hair wasn't showing, as long as I could prove I wasn't black, then I was free to enjoy these benefits. The fact that I was a soldier of the nation was irrelevant. And this all rested on the Constitution, according to the courts. And according to some 30-odd presidents, and according to some 180 Congresses. This isn't ancient history to me, this is my lifetime, my generation. I choose not to forget that we have this history. No one loves the Declaration or the Constitution more than me, but you have to see it in its correct perspective. And because it was so misused over those years, and it took us 200 years to get into the spirit that was intended by the Founding Fathers, even though they knew they couldn't do it in practice at that time, even though it took us 200 years, we can't ignore the legacy of that history that is still contaminating the present. I think tools such as affirmative action are useful to help us rub out, sand down this inequity that continues to haunt the present, that came from the past. Some say, "We don't wallow around in old history." Why not? We wallow around in the beauty of the Constitution and the Declaration, that's old history. So let's wallow around in all of it, as did the black people for all those years. Therefore, I think it is appropriate to use tools such as affirmative action and other similar tools.

I consider all of these to be transitional tools and temporary tools, but they're still necessary. And if anyone says they're not necessary then let's go visit some inner cities and look at 100 percent segregated schools in 1998. They're segregated by race and class, and class and race are all mixed up. We've got to get every one of these children educated and into a college. Those who are able to go to college and want to go to college and can qualify for college. This isn't for people who are not qualified. But give them that extra added advantage to get into universities, get them into the middle class and break the cycle, in that family, for that child, forever. That's what will speed things up.

I was told the same thing in 1963 and '64, "We don't need a civil rights law. That's wrong. It's personal property. If they don't want to serve blacks in a restaurant or on a public highway, so what?" So what? Put some shoe polish on your face and see what you think about it! This is a wonderful country. It was unthinkable for me to be Chairman when I came in the army 40 years ago next month. It would have been unthinkable for me to have said, "You're going to be Chairman? Come on!" But it happened. And so, what will happen in one more generation? Maybe we'll get rid of all of these residual problems. But we're not going to get rid of them by just ignoring them or saying, "Gee, just do better," or "It's your fault." We have to do better and to some extent we have to make sure our children don't ignore what their forefathers did to get us to this point. Excellence in performance and high standards are important, but I think it's also appropriate to use tools such as affirmative action to make sure all doors are open.

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