Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, has died of complications from COVID-19 while quietly battling blood cancer. He was 84.
In a statement on Facebook on Monday, the Powell family wrote that he passed away from unspecified COVID complications early Monday morning, and added: “We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment. We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”
His family said he was fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But he underwent prostate cancer treatment in 2003—and he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2019, according to Kathy Giusti, founder of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, who was in touch with him about his illness.
“He was doing really well with the myeloma,” Giusti told The Daily Beast. “He was on the typical treatments, but anytime you are on treatment and in any way immunocompromised and you get COVID, it’s a trickier situation.”
Giusti said her organization had booked Powell for a fireside chat in 2019 just because he was a popular figure and prostate cancer survivor. About a month before the event, he called to tell her he had just learned he had multiple myeloma.
They debated whether he should go public and the night of the event, “He was amazing... and he told the audience that he too was battling multiple myeloma.” The news, however, did not leak out until after Powell’s death.
Powell was sworn in as former President George W. Bush’s secretary of state in 2001, becoming the nation’s highest-ranking Black public official to date. He was forced to resign following Bush’s re-election in 2004 after he published faulty intelligence in order to justify the Iraq War—an act he later conceded would forever leave a “blot” on his record in office.
In a statement, Bush paid tribute to Powell, writing that he was “deeply saddened” by the announcement. “He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom—twice,” Bush wrote. “He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”
According to Powell’s Facebook page, one of his final public appearances was at a packed 9/11 memorial event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last month. He reportedly recounted that he was in Peru when he was told about the attacks that would shape the rest of his career. Powell told the audience that terrorism can’t destroy democratic systems, and paid tribute to front-line workers, saying: “They will never be forgotten.”
Tributes for Powell filled social media on Monday.
“As a Black man just trying to figure out the world, Colin Powell was an inspiration,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) wrote. “He was from NYC, went to City College, and rose to the highest ranks of our nation. Sending love, strength and prayer to the family and friends of Secretary Powell. Rest in power sir.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Powell “was a tremendous personal friend and mentor to me, and there’s a hole in my heart right now as I think about his loss. My thoughts and prayers today are with his family, and I want them to know I will miss him dearly.”
Giusti called Powell “an incredible man” who was living life to the fullest. “Every time I spoke to him, he said, ‘I am feeling amazing,’” she said. “It’s a reminder that when you have cancer you have to be on your game all the time.”
She cautioned against anyone extrapolating from Powell’s death that the COVID vaccine doesn’t work. “He died from COVID complications, but the fact is he was also dealing with cancer and was elderly.”
Last month, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that unvaccinated Americans were 4.5 times more likely than unvaccinated people to become infected with COVID-19, 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to lose their lives.