As I look at these photos I can’t help but cast my mind back to 1995 when General Colin Powell was being touted as a possible GOP candidate for the 1996 presidential elections which, had he chosen to run, might have given the US its first Black president over a decade before Obama.
This was the year of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March and Powell had come under intense pressure to repudiate Farrakhan as a ‘bigot’ and to help Americans separate the laudable message of the Million Man March from its ‘hateful’ messenger. And at the time Powell had caved in and issued the pro forma denunciation of Farrakhan’s ‘anti-Semitism’ to which Farrakhan had responded by pouring scorn on Powell’s presidential aspirations. One imagines they both reminisced about that as they sweltered under the Jamaican midday sun whilst playfully flirting with former beauty queen and Jamaican politician, Lisa Hanna.
I’ve always been struck by the curious parallelism in the lives of these two old soldiers. And by how, as Powell was serving as a grunt in the Vietnam War, Farrakhan was forging his way up the ranks of the paramilitary Nation of Islam in the urban Vietnam that was Black America. And as Powell later resurfaced in the 1980s as President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor, Farrakhan was mesmerising tens of thousands of disaffected Black Americans with his spellbinding oratory in stadia across the United States. And how both men’s paths later crossed in 1995 as Farrakhan was mobilising Black America for the Million Man March and Powell was mulling a 1996 presidential bid.
These are two of America’s most compelling and enigmatic Black titans and men whose parallel lives would lend themselves to a biography worthy of Alan Bullock. Both men are highly complex and kaleidoscopic personalities, both have notable accomplishments to their names but both are deeply haunted by past misdeeds – Farrakhan by his complicity in the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X and Powell by his connivance at the 1968 My Lai massacre.