WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) remembers the first time that he, as a young black Army officer, was allowed to buy a hamburger at a drive-in joint in Phenix City, Ala. He credits Martin Luther King for the law that let him do it.
It was July 1964, when the Civil Rights Act (search) was passed, "and I was able to go to the drive-in hamburger stand that had denied me service just a few weeks earlier [and] that now had to serve me," Powell said in an interview aired Sunday. "I'll never forget that particular day. ... And no one deserves greater credit for bringing about that day and that act than Dr. King."
Powell was interviewed for a syndicated television program on King titled "We Have a Dream," reminiscent of King's "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington (search) on Aug. 28, 1963.
That speech, Powell said, "was essentially a mirror placed in the face of the nation, and that speech said: 'Look at yourselves; look at us; look at who we are and what we are, and let's all have this dream.' And with that speech, he convinced all of America that what we had been doing was wrong and that things had to change."
Powell, whose last military job was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest-ranking soldier, attributed his career not only to King but to the civil rights leader's lieutenants including Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy. Also, he said, black soldiers who fought thanklessly for their country: the post-Civil War Buffalo Soldiers on the American frontier; and the Tuskegee Airmen, the Triple Nickel Parachute Battalion and the Montford Point Marines of World War II.
"All of them went and served their nation over a period of close to 300 years of military service in this country when they were ... asked to give blood for the nation but were not going to get the privileges of being citizens of this nation," Powell said.
"But they did it anyway. They did it anyway in the certainty that sooner or later right would triumph and our Constitution would be made whole."