Condoleezza Rice's 'Extraordinary, Ordinary' Life

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Birmingham, Ala. was not a sane or safe place for a Black family in the 1950s or 60s.

But it was home for John and Angelena Rice and their daughter, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  The city was so torn apart by racial violence it had earned the nickname "Bombingham."

It seemed an unlikely place to produce a future top diplomat for the country.

But Dr. Rice says her journey from the segregated South to high academia, and then to international diplomacy is a truly American story.

Foundation for Success

"Birmingham, Alabama, deep segregated south, (was) a place where you couldn't go into the Woolworth's and have a hamburger at the lunch counter," Rice recalled.

In her recent family memoir, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People," Rice recounts how her parents and grandparents created a foundation for success in the heart of the Jim Crow South. 

"This is really an American story. It's a story that says you can come from pretty humble circumstances and you can be expected to do great things if you have a few ingredients," Rice said of her memoir.

"I had parents who gave me unconditional love. And there isn't really any substitute for it," she told CBN. "Because my parents - and really my grandparents and the community - are very much the reason that I am who I am.

Extraordinary Tenacity

Her grandfather, a sharecropper's son, paid a year's worth of cotton for his freshman year at Stillman College. He became a Presbyterian minister after receiving a scholarship that paid for the rest of his education.

From that point forward, he planted churches and schools in community after community.

"And in my case, I had parents and grandparents, and a community that was remarkable for its tenacity and for its perseverance," Rice recalled. "These were, in many ways, ordinary people."

Her father, John Rice, followed in his father's footsteps, also becoming a Presbyterian minister after earning a college degree. He also worked as a high school guidance counselor.

Her mother, Angelena, was a teacher and a musician just like her mother before her. Rice's grandmother started the young Condi on the piano when she was just three years old. In fact, her name "Condoleezza" means "play with sweetness."

"My mother was an artist and I think I inherited her artistic temperament, her love of the arts, her belief that the arts are really our democratic heritage, they shouldn't be for the elite," Rice said.

Investing in Others

The Rices invested their lives in others. The oppression and racial hatred they endured didn't stop them from opening doors of opportunity for the next generation.

"In the afternoon my father had a youth fellowship. That was where he brought kids from really all over the city," Rice recalled. "He would have for them bible study, but he also had social events.  On Tuesday we had tutoring in algebra and we had tutoring in French."

"I was very much active in the church because, at a very young age, I started playing the piano for the church," she continued. "So we were kind of an interesting family. My mom played the organ, my father preached, and I played the piano."

A Nation Awakened

While young Condi was playing the piano in church on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, a large explosion rocked the community. Two blocks away, a bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killed four girls who were preparing for morning choir worship. 

Black Birmingham was grief stricken. Their outrage awakened the nation.

History records these murders as a tipping point in the Civil Rights Movement. Rice remembers it as the day her playmate, Denise McNair, who had receiving her kindergarten diploma from Condi's father, was killed.

"When you walk through difficult circumstances or frightening circumstances, when you're younger - I was as a kid when 16th Street was bombed - you cling to your parents," she said. "And they, perhaps, cling to their faith to know how to help you through that."

"When you're an adult, you, of course, have family and friends, but you don't cling to your parents," she continued.

"You have to have something, though, that is there for you," she said. "And I think that's when it's most wonderful to have had a well-developed sense of faith."

A Parent's Greatest Gift

Having grown up during that era, Rice stressed the importance for today's Black Americans to really understand what it was like for parents like hers to be able to overcome the challenges they faced during that time.

"We owe so much to our parents' generation because they had every reason - and certainly even our grandparents - they had every reason to be beaten down, so to speak, by what they saw," she said.

"Every day, the humiliations of segregation. Every day the negative messages of segregation. And yet they lived lives of dignity, they lived productive lives," Rice recalled. "And that is really quite extraordinary given what they lived through."

"So we owe a debt of gratitude to that generation who brought us through," she continued.

"And, of course, the one thing that both of my parents had that I'm grateful to have is a deep and abiding faith in God," she said. "There's no greater gift parents can give their kids than that."

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