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In 2008, some Republicans claimed Obama was a Muslim. Colin Powell pushed back

President Barack Obama speaks with former Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Oval Office on Dec. 1, 2010. Powell, who had broken his longtime Republican ties to endorse Obama in 2008, died Monday.
Saul Loeb
AFP via Getty Images
President Barack Obama speaks with former Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Oval Office on Dec. 1, 2010. Powell, who had broken his longtime Republican ties to endorse Obama in 2008, died Monday.

The American statesman Colin Powell died on Monday due to complications from COVID-19. He was 84 years old.

While many remember the four-star Army general for his history-making tenure as the nation's first Black secretary of state and his controversial and misleading justification for the U.S. war in Iraq, the longtime Republican's legacy also includes a notable break from his party to endorse Democrat Barack Obama in his first White House bid.

A race like no other

That presidential race, in 2008, became one of the most politically and socially consequential contests in American history.

Obama was the first Black nominee of a major American political party. His Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, was a Vietnam War veteran who ran as the natural successor to the hawkish neoconservative movement that President George W. Bush had overseen in office. McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, then the governor of Alaska, would have been the first female vice president.

As the presidential race went on, a cloud of racism and xenophobia settled over the contest, and many attacks from the right hinged on the lie of birtherism, including the false assertion that Obama was not only not a U.S. citizen but a closeted Muslim, which some in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks viewed as inherently disqualifying for a potential president of the United States.

Powell had donated to McCain in the early days of his candidacy but pivoted his support in 2008 to Obama, calling him an inspiration and "a transformational figure" for the world stage.

What Powell said

Turning his attention to the stream of racist attacks that had emerged against Obama, Powell forcefully denounced the Islamophobia that he said had been apparent in the Republican Party and dismissed out of hand the idea that there should be anything wrong with a Muslim American seeking public office.

"I'm also troubled by — not what Sen. McCain says — but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said. Such things as, 'Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim,' " Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press in 2008.

"Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, 'What if he is?' Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?"

Powell, who was a Vietnam veteran as well, also spoke about having recently seen a magazine photo essay about U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeing the image of a grieving mother at Arlington National Cemetery mourning her 20-year-old son, who had been killed in the line of duty in Iraq.

"At the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith," Powell said. "He was an American."

Breaking with his own party

Powell's forthright condemnation of anti-Muslim speech and ideas put him at odds with some senior members of the Republican Party.

Powell would go on to advise Obama on issues regarding the United States' presence in Afghanistan and endorse Obama again in 2012 for a second term.

In later years, Powell continued to try to right the ship of the Republican Party, which he viewed as having veered dangerously far right.

In 2016, as Donald Trump became the GOP presidential nominee, powered by xenophobic rhetoric toward Muslims and Mexicans as well as a vow to unsettle the status quo, Powell expressed his disgust with what he viewed as an emerging spinelessness in his party. He said that Republicans had "gone into the mud" and the race had dissolved into "nastiness."

In 2021, after far-right supporters of Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden's White House victory, Powell left the party for good.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.