Former Secretary of State Colin Powell thinks he knows exactly how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have reacted had he been alive to see an African-American sworn in as president.
“If he were here today, he would rejoice at what had happened. But he would say to the president, ‘Mr. President, we’ve got more work to do,’ ” Powell told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Tuesday, just hours before Barack Obama was to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.
Being satisfied with the way things are was never part of King’s personality, said Powell, the former four-star general who served from 2000 to ’05 as the nation’s first black secretary of state.
Lauer asked Powell what problems King would have told Obama need to be addressed.
“He would say, ‘Poverty, education ... there are still people in need in this country,’ ” Powell replied. “ ‘The country has some serious problems, crime, drugs. We still need to do more about putting families back together.’ Dr. King was a man who never rested. He struggled up to the last day of his life.”
King was assassinated in 1968, five years after he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a vast throng on the mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. In that address, King spoke of a day when people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.
A Republican, Powell, 71, broke with his party last year to endorse Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain for president. On Monday, in a Martin Luther King Day address to 15,000 high school students, Powell recalled his thoughts at the moment Obama was declared the victor on Nov. 4.
“I’ll never forget the words that came to me and the words I whispered to an empty room: ‘My God, we did it,’ ” he had said.
An electric moment
Powell elaborated on that moment with Lauer.
“It was an electric moment for me, and, I think, for the country, because there were so many people who said, ‘You know, they’ll go in the booth, and they really won’t pull the lever for a black man,’ ” Powell explained. “There were people around the world who said, America is too polarized. We are too split apart. We are too ideologically separated as people, and we can’t come together to do this. And we did it.”
The celebration of Obama’s historic election spread beyond the borders of the country that elected him. “People went out in the streets in Chicago and Rio and Sydney — in Obama, Japan,” Powell recalled. “All around the world, people came out to celebrate this American achievement.”
Lauer asked Powell what he would be thinking when Obama takes the oath of office.
“I’m not sure I can capture it all,” Powell replied. “But one: A very, very capable man is coming to the office of the presidency, a man of the new generation, a man I think will be a transformational figure. And he’s fully qualified, and he also happens to be African-American — I put it in that order.”
That is how King envisioned things in his dream, Powell continued. “We’ve come to a point in this country where we can measure people as Dr. King always wanted us to: by their character and their qualifications, and not by their color. But you can’t deny the fact that [Obama] is an African-American ... you see how far we’ve come in the last several hundred years, but especially just the last 45 or 50 years since Dr. King put us on this path.”
Not going it aloneLauer asked Powell if the nation is putting too much faith in one man.
“We’re putting a lot of faith in one man, but he’s not coming in alone. He’s coming in with a strong cabinet. But above all, he’s coming in with the support of the American people,” Powell replied.
Powell remarked on how important McCain has been in promoting a spirit of bipartisanship as Obama takes office. The Arizona senator called for unity in his moving concession speech on the night of the election, and on Monday night Obama hosted a dinner in McCain’s honor.
The new president will need all the help he can get as he takes the helm of a ship of state that is battered on all sides. Powell said that America’s standing in the world has been hurt by the Iraq war, by continuing violent conflict in the Middle East, by the abuses of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
“I think it’s recoverable,” he said of America’s reputation. But to do that, Obama will need help: “He can’t do it alone. All of us have to help him in our homes, in our lives, in our businesses.”