Askia MuhammadColumnistsOp-EdOpinion

MUHAMMAD: Colin Powell, The Working Man’s Barack Obama

As the tributes — as well as the critiques — pour in for Gen. Colin Powell, who joined his ancestors Oct. 18, I remember him most as a true Buffalo Soldier. “In the heart of America. Stolen from Africa. Brought to America. Fighting for survival,” so said Bob Marley. Colin Powell also traced Jamaican roots.

Colin Powell is a hero in my book because he showed strong like Gen. Chappie James, like Gen. Benjamin Davis, like Col. Charles Young, like the Original Buffalo Soldier Him Was all the time.

He reached the pinnacle, without losing his esteem as a Black man — I think his roots coming from the ROTC program at City University of New York rather than through the service academy, made him somewhat immune from being racially shamed, but he did drink the Kool-Aid and permanently marred his reputation when he told the world that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq under the control of President Saddam Hussein. Unconscionable.

But Colin Powell lived another life in presidential politics when he bucked his Republican Party and supported Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in 2008. I remember the moment well. It was during a Sunday morning appearance on “Meet The Press.” In those days, reporters would frequently “stake out” the major news shows for an impromptu press conference after their show appearances.

What struck me about Powell’s remarks was what he said about Republikkkan-spread rumors that Obama was a Muslim, as though that would be a certain disqualifying condition to prevent him from becoming president — after you got over the stinking “birther” conspiracies. It was ugly.

But Gen. Powell shut the nasty conversation down. The U.S. Constitution protects freedom of religion Powell told us, and it specifically says that there can “be no religious test” for any position in this country. It’s in the Constitution. Explicitly. “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That is verbatim, Article VI, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution!

I find this remarkable because it was Powell alone who had the courage to say that a religious test clause is strictly prohibited by the Constitution. Not in an amendment, mind you, but right there in the main text.

Then I began to wonder, why hadn’t I ever heard Sen. — or President — Obama ever say that religious discrimination is expressly forbidden by the Constitution? Certainly, constitutional-law professor Obama must surely have taught his students that any form of religious test for government office is unconstitutional, right? How could he not teach that important article of the Constitution to his law students?

Instead, Obama hastened to the “I am not a Muslim,” defense whenever he was required to speak on the subject. I wish Obama had shown the courage of Powell on that subject. After all, I did have in my possession, hidden from public view, 2005 portraits of Sen. Obama at a Congressional Black Caucus meeting with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, portraits that would have proved incendiary to the Obama campaign. Naw, Obama took the easy way out — while throwing his Christian pastor for two decades, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, under the bus of political expedience.

Like the Buffalo Soldiers who fought against the Native people, instead of on the side of the Native people, Obama, Powell — all of us — must deal with our contradictions as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois describes them: “One feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

So, I salute Colin Powell, top soldier, political statesman, flawed diplomat, for pulling a veil from my eyes which not only enlightened me about the Constitution, but also gave me a key for seeing into the soul of a popular president of the United States.

He was a lunch-bucket kind of guy, a woulda-been-president kind of guy. The Original Barack Obama in U.S. presidential politics. The Working Man’s Barack Obama.

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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