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Rice speaks during a briefing at the State Department. (Getty Images)

Condoleezza Rice Details Her Civil Rights Roots

Oct 13, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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'Extraordinary, Ordinary People'

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The life of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is anchored by seminal events in U.S. history, from her youth in segregated Alabama to helping plan the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

That life arc might strike some as unlikely — and Rice says that when people ask her how she traveled from the civil rights era to the White House, she points to her parents.

"I always say, you had to know John and Angelena Rice," she tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "So, this is really their story, and my life wrapped in their story."

Rice tells those stories in her new book, Extraordinary, Ordinary People, the first half of a planned two-book memoir.

The book is a deeply personal account of growing up under segregation in Birmingham, Ala., where the threat of violence was never far away. But its dominant theme is the influence of Rice's parents, who were committed educators. Her father was also the minister of a well-respected Presbyterian church.

Rice says that as a girl, she was expected to take on any educational opportunity that arose. "I would even say that my parents, and their friends in our community, thought of education as a kind of armor against racism," she says. "If you were well-educated and you spoke well, then there was only so much 'they' could do to you."

In this case, the "they" were white racists, Rice says.

Even with a strong education, "you had to be twice as good to be accepted," Rice says. But even in an unfair climate, Rice was taught not to be a victim.

"That was a sin," she says, "to consider yourself victimized, or not able to control your destiny, or your fate — that was the one cardinal sin in our community."

In her book, Rice describes Birmingham of that era as "eclipsing every other big American city in the ugliness of its racism."

For instance, Rice recalls that the presence of police was a bad sign — and often a dangerous one.

The situation "exploded" in 1963, she says, with riots, police abuse — and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September, when four young girls were killed. One of them, Denise McNair, was just a few years older than Rice, and had been a playmate of hers.

"And if you were a child in Birmingham, you knew then that this was not a safe place," she says.

Even a childhood visit to see Santa Claus could become a racially charged event, Rice says. As the Rice family waited in line, her father, John, noticed that the white man portraying Santa was keeping black kids at arm's length, while putting white children on his knee.

Rice recalls her father saying, "If he does that to Condoleezza, I'm going to pull all that stuff off him, and just expose him as the cracker that he is."

"I sort of went forward with a lot of trepidation," she says. "I wasn't really sure who was going to go off here — Santa Claus or Daddy. My dad was a big man — he was 6 foot 2 and built like a football player."

Luckily for all involved, Santa plopped young Condoleezza onto his knee and asked her what she wanted for Christmas.

Rice's parents did not march in the various civil rights rallies taking place in Birmingham. Instead, Rice says, they did other things to show their support — like boycotting certain stores and refusing to give student protesters' names to state authorities.

Rice says she overheard her parents discussing the marches, and John Rice's decision to stay away. "My father was very clear about why he wouldn't [march]," Rice says. "My dad was not someone who you would strike with a billy club and he wouldn't strike back. It just wasn't in him."

Rice remembers her parents' conversation this way: "They would have hit him — meaning, the police. He would have fought back ... and his daughter would have been an orphan."

In the months since she's written the book, Rice says, she's been surprised by the number of people who hadn't realized how fully places like Birmingham were defined by racism and segregation in the 1960s.

She also wanted to tell the story, she says, of "how my parents, and our community, reacted to it — not being beaten down by it, not even being particularly bitter about it. But rather, believing, 'Well, you may not have been able to control those circumstances, but you could control how you reacted to your circumstances.'

"Maybe that's a good story for people to know," she says.

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