Friends, family and former colleagues gathered at Washington National Cathedral on Friday to honour Colin Powell, the trailblazing soldier-diplomat who rose from humble Bronx beginnings to become the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later served as the first black secretary of state.
The funeral drew dignitaries and friends from across a wide political and military spectrum. They included former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, former secretaries of state James Baker, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, former defence secretary Robert Gates, and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen Mark Milley, as well as other service chiefs.
As guests gathered in the cavernous cathedral that has hosted the funerals of several past presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower, the US Army Brass Quintet played a range of tunes, including Dancing Queen by Abba, a favourite of Powell’s.
As his widow, Alma, and other family members were seated, the quintet played a hymn called Mansions of the Lord.
President Joe Biden attended but did not speak. Two recent presidents did not attend — Bill Clinton, who is recovering from an infection, and Donald Trump, whom Powell had criticised.
Eulogists were Madeleine Albright, who was Powell’s immediate predecessor as the nation’s top diplomat; Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary under Powell and had known him since they served together in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration; and Powell’s son, Michael.
“For as he said in his autobiography, his journey was an American journey,” Mr Powell said of his father. “Colin Powell was a great lion with a big heart. We will miss him terribly.”
Powell died on October 18 of complications from Covid-19 at age 84.
He had been vaccinated against coronavirus, but his family said his immune system had been compromised by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer for which he had been undergoing treatment.
Funeral attendees on Friday were required to wear masks, although not all did.
The story of Powell’s rise to prominence in American life is a historic example to many.
In his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell recalled a post-Depression Era childhood in the Hunts Point section of New York City’s South Bronx, where he was a mediocre student — happy-go-lucky but aimless.
He caught the military bug during his first year at the City College of New York in 1954.
Powell would go on to serve 35 years in uniform.
He distinguished himself at the Pentagon before he attained flag officer rank. He later served in the White House as Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, and in 1989, he was promoted to four-star general. Later that year, President George H W Bush selected him to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
“He was such a favourite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice,” George W Bush said when Powell’s death was announced.
Powell’s view was that the US should commit its military only when it had a clear and achievable political objective, a key element of what became known as the Powell Doctrine, which embodied lessons taken from the US failure in Vietnam.
He put his credibility on the line in February 2003 when, appearing before the UN as secretary of state, he made the case for war in Iraq. When it turned out that the intelligence he had cited was faulty and the Iraq War became a bloody, chaotic nightmare, Powell’s stellar reputation was damaged.
After leaving government, he became an elder statesman on the global stage and the founder of an organisation aimed at helping young, disadvantaged Americans.
Republicans wanted him to run for president. After becoming disillusioned with his party, he ended up endorsing the last three Democratic presidential candidates, who welcomed his support.
Lloyd Austin, who in January became the first black secretary of defence, called Powell a friend and professional mentor. Like Powell, Mr Austin rose through the ranks to become a four-star general.
On the day of Powell’s death, Mr Austin called him “one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed.”