Students on Scholastic.com interviewed former Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, (Ret.) during 2000's Black History
Month. General Powell is currently chairman of America's
Promise, a national organization dedicated to mobilizing individuals
and groups to help strengthen the character and competence of the nation's
Read a biography of General
Powell to learn more about him.
How did it feel to be the first African-American Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff?
I was very honored and pleased that I was selected by President George
Bush to become the first black Chairman. I also felt a great deal of gratitude
towards the black soldiers who had served before me in the past, but because
of segregation and racism, never had the chance for themselves to become
the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were the trailblazers
for me. It's because of their sacrifices that I was able to get to where
I got. And now I want to try to make things better for the young people
who come after me.
Which African Americans do you wish people knew more about?
I think we can always benefit from learning more about Dr. King. But there
were so many other people of accomplishment who were black who should
also be studied: George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, Gen. Chappie
James, and Lt. Flipper. I won't tell you who each of these folks are;
I hope you will look them up for yourself if you don't already know!
What is the biggest change you have seen in the military since you
began serving? What changes would you like to see?
The military is far better now than it was when I first came in the
troops are better educated and better trained; the equipment is much more
sophisticated. We have many more women and minorities, and I think that's
good. Also, today's military is much more family-oriented, as opposed
to the bachelor military I knew when I came in. There are many more married
people in the military now with families. The biggest change of all though,
of course, is that we don't have the same big enemy we had when I came
in the Soviet Union. Because of this we are doing more peacekeeping
now than fighting, and that's good. I think we have to continue to invest
in high-tech weapons and systems. I think we have to continue to pay our
soldiers well, and make sure that we take care of their families.
Were you ever treated unfairly by white people as a kid or as an adult?
As a soldier, when I was not on a military base, yes. For the first several
years I was in the army, we still had segregation in the country. Even
though I was an officer serving in the army, there were restaurants I
couldn't go into and motels I couldn't stay at, simply because I was black.
I'm also sure there were people in the army who didn't like me because
I was black. But the army had been integrated, we had our orders, and
they were not allowed to show their racism or their feelings towards me.
All I could do was my very, very best and show them that I was equal to
them, and that they had no reason to discriminate against me because of
What was the most frightening experience of your life?
The first time somebody shot at me in Vietnam. I didn't get hit, but a
soldier in the same patrol was killed, and I suddenly realized that this
was no longer some training exercise or a game it was for real. There
were people out there on the other side of the war who were trying to
kill me, and if they failed one day, they would try to kill me the next
day. That was pretty scary to think about.
What did you do to earn a Purple Heart?
Something kind of dumb! It was in Vietnam. I was walking on patrol through
the jungle, and I slipped and fell into a trap that the enemy had put
on the trail. It was a covered hole in the ground that had sharp bamboo
spikes at its bottom. I slipped into the hole, my foot went down, and
a spike went through my foot. It was painful, but it wasn't serious. I
was okay again in a few weeks.
Did you ever lose any friends in wartime?
Yes, I lost many friends during the Vietnam War. They were soldiers and
knew the risk in serving the country. Still, it hurt every time it happened,
and I think of them all the time. I lost four of my college classmates
in the Vietnam War. All were good friends.
What exactly is it like in war? Is it constant fighting? What is
the scariest part?
The scariest part is worrying about being hurt or killed. It is not a
constant danger though; in fact, there are long periods of boredom where
nothing is happening and you're waiting for the battle to begin. That
can also be a scary time, too. Soldiers know what it's like to be scared
in battle that's why soldiers hate war and why soldiers try to avoid
violence. I hope you young people understand how terrible it is to hurt
somebody else or inflict pain on someone else. Always try to avoid violence,
to avoid fighting. Try to solve problems by respecting each other and
by talking to each other.
What do you think about the violence in today's schools?
Violence, anywhere in our society, and especially in our schools, is to
be condemned and deplored. We need to constantly remind our children that
they should treat other children the way they would wish to be treated.
They should walk away from situations that are leading to violence, and
they should always try to resolve problems through discussion and compromise.
What were you like as a child? Did you make good grades? What was
your favorite subject?
I was pretty average as a kid. I wasn't particularly good at sports, and
I ran a straight C average most of the time. I wasn't one of the big kids
on the block, but I enjoyed my childhood growing up in New York City.
It was a pretty safe place in those days, and I used to ride my bike all
over the city, and take the subway to go all the way downtown. I think,
though, if anybody had seen me in those days, they wouldn't have thought
that I was kid who was going to be particularly successful in life.
What kept you motivated to do your best in school every day?
It was hard to get motivated every day in school I can't say I loved
going to school. But my parents insisted that I do my homework every day
and that I do my very best in school every day. And to my great surprise,
I ended up getting a pretty good education! But I'm still not sure how
Did you study black history in school?
No, we didn't have black history programs in the schools back then. Though
we did learn about people like George Washington Carver. And Jackie Robinson
was important he was the first black man to play on a Major League baseball
field. I was 10 years old when that happened.
Do you remember a particular teacher making a difference in your life,
and in what grade?
I'm such an old guy that it's getting harder and harder to remember the
names of my teachers! I've been out of elementary school for over 50 years.
But there is one teacher I will never forget. Her name was Miss Ryan,
and she was my English teacher. I remember her because she was a hard
teacher. She didn't let us get away with anything in class. She was determined
that we would learn to use the English language properly. We also knew
that she really liked us. And that's why she was so hard on us because
she wanted us to do well.
Did you have a favorite book as a child?
One book that I remember was My Antonia by Willa Cather. It was a wonderful
story about a young girl growing up in the Midwest, and for some reason
it has stuck in my mind all these years. Maybe it was because the story
was about a young girl who lived so far away from where I lived and was
so different from me.
Were you in Boy Scouts, sports, or any other group activities when
you were a child?
I was in Boy Scouts for a while. All of my athletic activity was just
playing around in the street. We played touch football and a game called
stickball using a broom handle and a rubber ball to play in the middle
of the streets. But I didn't participate in any organized leagues it
was all just for fun.
Was your goal to be someone important when you were younger?
No, that wasn't a goal and I never thought I would be someone important.
I was just a pretty average kid with average grades in an average home.
There was nothing special about me. When I was about 17 years old, I joined
the Cadet Corps in my college and found that I was a pretty good cadet
and might make a pretty good soldier. I picked the army as a career, and
of course I hoped that I would get promoted, but what I really wanted
was to do the best I could every single day. By doing my best every day,
day after day, year after year, I finally got to the top. Being important
isn't as important as doing your best every day.
If you hadn't joined the military, what other jobs were of interest
I don't know. I studied geology in college, but I wasn't very
good at it. I think I just would have gotten some kind of office job in
New York and just stayed there.
How did you meet your wife? What activities is she involved in?
I met her on a blind date when I was a young lieutenant in 1961. We got
married nine months later when I was on my way to Vietnam. She is the
vice chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington,
D.C. She is also very active in a lot of volunteer activities, including
a program called Best Friends, which works with teenage girls. And she
spends a lot of her time as a grandmother to our two grandsons, ages six
If one of your grandchildren decided to join the military, what advice
would you give them as their grandfather?
I'd give them the same advice
I gave my son when he went into the military. And that was, the day before
he went into the military, I woke him up and said, "Mike, always accomplish
the mission, and always take care of your troops."
Do you see a day when there will be no need for a military?
No, I think we will need a military for as long as I can see into the
future. The military is a good insurance policy to have. If you have a
strong military, then your friends will be assured, and potential enemies
will think twice about causing trouble. If you don't have a strong military,
then troublemakers might try to take advantage of you it's kind
of like having a cop in the neighborhood.
Our class is doing a lesson on leadership characteristics. Which characteristics
do you think you portray?
The word that immediately leaps to my mind is trust. Good leaders are
people that other people trust. You can trust good leaders to do the right
thing, take care of other people, and to be selfless. And to be very loyal.
In the military, you know you're a good leader when people are willing
to trust you and to place their lives in your hands.
What do you believe "history" will say about you?
Well, I'm not
sure. I'm sure it will note some of the facts that everybody knows about
I was the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the youngest.
My only request of history is that the history books say "he was a good
soldier and served the nation well."
Is there one accomplishment in your life that you think stands out
above the rest?
My three kids. I'm proudest of all of being a father
and a husband, with three great kids who are now all adults. Everything
else getting promoted, being Chairman, is secondary to the accomplishment
of having a strong family.
If you could change something about your life, what would it be?
I don't know how to answer that because I never think about it. You can't
change your life, you can't change anything that happened in the past.
What I've always tried to do is to learn from mistakes in the past and
always look ahead. Too many people spend time today thinking about something
that went wrong yesterday or the day before. There's nothing you can do
to change what happened, so learn what you can and then move on. And always
try to do better. I am very happy with my life, even when I've had things
go very wrong. I learned from those experiences. Life has its ups and
downs and you grow with those ups and downs.
At what age did you start having long-term goals?
I'm 62 and I
don't have them yet! I have never been very good at long-term goals. I
have so much fun living every day that I really don't spend a great deal
of time thinking about what I might be doing five or 10 years from now.
I'm always preparing myself for what the future might hold, and I do think
about it, but I really don't spend time writing long-term plans about
what I'm going to do and where I'm going to end up. Many people do and
that's fine, but I tend to just start every day waiting for new doors
Do you see yourself running for President of the United States in
I don't see myself running for President. I considered
it several years ago, but decided that I would serve the nation in private
life rather than political office. It is important that we do have people
who are willing to serve in political office, and I'm glad that so many
Americans do want to run for political office. It's what makes democracy
work. But you really have to have a passion and a commitment to the political
process to become a successful politician.
What issues do you think are important for the presidential candidates
to cover that are in the best interests of children?
The first thing
that comes to mind is improving the education system and making it easier
for young people to get into college. Also, I think helping to expand
the Internet in schools and making sure we have school lunch programs
where they are needed in our communities. Finally, encouraging communities
to make sure teachers are well paid, so that we can get the best teachers
in our schools.
If you could change only one thing about education for kids, what
would it be?
I think our educational programs across the country are
pretty good, but if there was one subject I could make more important
than any other, and put more money and resources into than any other,
it would be English. English, English, English. When you know how to read,
write, and speak the English language properly and well, you can learn
any other subject.
Since you've traveled the world, are there any examples from other
countries that we can learn from regarding citizenship, education, etc.?
I've traveled to dozens and dozens of countries, and I've seen many different
educational systems and different cultures, and I always come back home
with a great appreciation of our own. Ours is a combination of the rest
of the world's. Every country that has sent immigrants to America has
sent a part of their culture along with those immigrants.
Why did you take an interest in helping America's youth through America's
Once I left the army and started traveling around the country,
I saw that most kids in America were doing just fine. But I also saw many
kids who weren't growing up in strong homes or who didn't have the opportunity
to participate in Boys or Girls clubs or other after-school opportunities.
I decided to try to help to get more clubs built, to ask more adults to
step forward to be mentors, to see if we could get more computers for
schools and clubs. We need to make sure that every kid in America understands
that he or she is important, and that we are going to try to make each
and every one of them a success in life.
What has been the most rewarding experience for you in working with
children through America's Promise?
To see a young person who didn't
think they could make it, who wouldn't talk to you, and who was afraid
of school to utterly turn around and become a good student because a mentor
comes into his or her life and gives that young person inspiration and
hope and someone to believe in. It is the most rewarding part of America's
Promise, to see a child at risk become a child of promise.
Do you agree with Tom Brokaw that the generation that fought in WWII
was "the greatest generation"? Do you think kids today can make
that kind of positive impact on the world?
I think the generation that fought World War II was a great generation,
though I am hesitant to call it the greatest meaning better than any
other that ever lived because every generation has greatness. The generation
of our Founding Fathers, with Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, was certainly
just as great as Tom Brokaw's greatest generation. There are some great
people in this generation, and I have no doubt that there will be a need
for great leaders in the next generation. That's why all of you young
people participating in this session have to apply yourselves in school.
Because you will be those leaders.
How can students get involved in helping their communities?
There are many ways. We have just put up a new Web site called helping.org,
and it has suggestions about things you could do in your community. One
idea, for example, is to collect books that are no longer used in your
home and give them to a school or club that needs books. You can also
participate in cleanup projects in your community. Frankly, one of the
most important things you can do is to help your mom and dad around the
house without complaining about it!
Are there any final thoughts you would like to share?
this session very much. I hope that all of the young people participating
will continue to study hard and show their appreciation to their teachers,
who come to class every single day to share with them their experience
and their education. Your teachers are so very important to you at this
time. Listen to them, respect them, and when we sign off today, turn around
and say "thank you" to your teachers.