It is not necessary to agree with everything that Colin Powell ever said or did to acknowledge that this soldier, statesman, and trailblazer was a true American hero. While mourning his passing, I celebrate his life, which has much to teach us about America and the never-ending task of realizing the ideals expressed in our founding guideposts, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Last week at the celebration of the Free State Foundation's Fifteenth Anniversary, I said that our think tank's mission "is to promote, through research and educational activities, understanding of free market, free speech, limited government, and rule of law principles and to advocate laws and policies true to these principles."
While much will be said and written in the coming days regarding General Powell's various contributions to our country, here I want to focus on one that is particularly relevant to our present moment, when "Cancel Culture" runs rampant throughout much of American society, chilling the ability to think clearly and speak freely.
In May 1994, Colin Powell delivered the Commencement Address at Howard University, and I commend it to you in its entirety. At the time of his speech, Howard was embroiled in a controversy regarding its decision to allow a Black writer and member of Nation of Islam to deliver a speech containing racist and anti-Semitic statements. Here is part of what General Powell said:
"I believe with all my heart that Howard must continue to serve as an institution of learning excellence where freedom of speech is strongly encouraged and rigorously protected.
That is at the very essence and heart of a great university and there is no doubt that Howard is a great university.
And freedom of speech means permitting the widest range of views to be presented, however controversial those views may be.
The First Amendment right of free speech is intended to protect the controversial and even the outrageous word, and not just comforting platitudes, too mundane to need protection.
Some say that by hosting controversial speakers who shock our sensibilities, Howard is in some way promoting or endorsing that message – not at all. Howard has helped put that message in perspective while protecting their right to be heard, so the message can be exposed to the full light of day for comment and criticism."
Isn't it a shame that now, more than a quarter century later, so many of those in our government, businesses, media, educational institutions, and elsewhere throughout society don't understand – or have the courage to stand up for – Colin Powell's ringing endorsement of freedom of speech, and why it matters if we are to remain a free society?
In recent months, I've written four pieces in a series called "Thinking Clearly and Speaking Freely," to consider the impact of the Cancel Culture and what can be done about it. Consistent with that part of the Free State Foundation's mission devoted to promoting free speech, we will continue to address this subject. But, today, you need go no further than studying – and taking to heart – Colin Powell's words from his Howard University commencement address.
Finally, in closing, General Powell also said this to the graduating students on that day in May 1994:
"Above all, never lose faith in America. Its faults are yours to fix, not to curse. America is a family: There may be differences and disputes within the family, but we must not allow the family to be broken into warring factions. From the diversity of our people, let us draw strength and not seek weakness.
Believe in America with all your heart and soul, with all of your mind. Remember, that it remains the "last, best hope of Earth." You are its inheritors and its future is today placed in your hands."
Like his call to protect free speech, General Powell's call to never lose faith in America –and the American family writ large – could not be timelier today.
Colin Powell, RIP.