Colin Powell: We've come along way, but African-American struggle "not over"

Colin Powell, former secretary of state and retired four-star general, is a part of the experience at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on many fronts. Not only were he and his wife Alma donors to the museum and sit on its council, but the barriers he broke in both the military and the government serve as prime examples of the broader contributions African-Americans have made to the country and its history. 

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Gen. Colin Powell’s uniform

CBS News

Powell, who donated his uniform to the museum, was the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His military career began in the middle of the civil rights struggle and he retired from the Pentagon as a four-star general. Powell then became the first black secretary of state under President George W. Bush.

Calling the museum a “treasure,” Powell stressed its significance extends beyond African-American history.

“It’s American history, and it’s filling a gap that has existed in American history for so many years,” Powell said Monday on “CBS This Morning. “This has been in concept for a hundred years, and now it’s here and it’s beautiful. It’s magnificent, and it’s different from any other thing on the [National] Mall. It’s striking.”

Powell said the museum is “a symbol of what can be achieved and how we have worked so hard for this long period of time to give African-Americans the recognition they deserve.” But he also stressed that “the struggle” for black Americans is not yet over.

“I came into the Army just after segregation ended, and it was still a situation where I could go to Fort Benning, Georgia, to get my infantry and paratroop and ranger training, but if I went outside of Fort Benning, Georgia, to Columbus, Georgia, it would still segregated. I couldn’t get a hamburger. And it was another few years before that ended,” Powell said. “So we’ve come an extremely long way over the last half century of my public life, but there’s a way to go yet. We shouldn’t think it’s over. We know it’s not over. We see the problems.”

The problems now include economic, educational and housing inequalities, Powell said.

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“CBS This Morning” co-hosts Norah O’Donnell, Charlie Rose and Gayle King (L to R) speak with Gen. Colin Powell outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 12, 2016.

CBS News

One of the many exhibits at the museum honors the contributions of African-Americans to the military. According to the U.S. Army, African-Americans served in the American Revolution, and approximately 186,000 served in the Civil War Union Army, including 94,000 former slaves from the South. The Tuskegee Airmen also never lost an escorted plane to the enemy during World War II.

“African-Americans were always willing to serve the nation that was not yet willing to serve them,” Powell said.

Black soldiers, he added, were determined that if they could prove that they could fight as well as the white soldiers, “they could do anything in this country.”

While the 2016 presidential election is drawing closer, the former secretary of state is staying mum about who he’ll be voting for in November, saying he would like to see the candidates face off in at least one debate. However, without naming names, Powell did allude to something he didn’t agree with: 

“There are elements in my party, the Republican Party, that show some level of intolerance that I don’t think is worthwhile for the party to demonstrate,” he said.