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LONG AGO, in segregated Birmingham, on the children's floor of a downtown department store, a white saleslady spotted an exquisitely dressed black mother heading with her young daughter for fitting rooms reserved for whites only. The year was 1961, and downtown Birmingham was an apartheid society, with blacks assigned inferior status in where they ate, where they relieved themselves, even where little girls tried on pretty dresses.
The saleslady stepped into the path of the mother and child, took the dress from the little girl and motioned to a storage room. "She'll have to try it on in there," she said.
The first black female national security adviser, Rice grew up in the segregated South but watchful parents who taught her to "confront white society on its own terms."
No sooner had the clerk laid down the law than the black mother upped the ante. Stepping coolly out of her caste as a "colored" woman, she addressed the clerk as the hired help she was: "My daughter will try on this dress in a dressing room, or I'm not spending my money here."
Condoleezza Rice was only 7 years old then. But even now, at 46, in her White House office down the corridor from President Bush, America's national security adviser has a vivid memory of her mother standing her ground in Birmingham, with nothing on her side but her dignity and her wallet. And another memory, equally clear, of the result: The white salesclerk wilting like a flower at her mother's dare, furtively guiding them to an out-of-the-way dressing room in hopes of salvaging her commission.
"I remember the woman standing there guarding the door, worried to death she was going to lose her job," says Rice.
THE FIRST BLACK FEMALE national security adviser learned her first lessons about might and right in segregated Birmingham. The encounter in the department store, one of many life lessons, was hardly exceptional. Rice's parents belonged to a black elite, based more on education than on money. Long before there was a civil rights movement, they had learned from their own parents how to extract dignity from a system designed to crush it. Now they were training their only child to do the same, not through the mass movement the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. soon would bring to Birmingham, but as a soloist.
She began piano lessons at age 3 and, at 4, accompanied the choir at the church her father pastored, dressed always like a vision in the finest clothes her middle-class parents could buy. She read fluently at 5, and when the superintendent of Negro schools deemed her too young for first grade, her mother rather than hold her back took a year off from work and taught her at home.
"My parents were very strategic," explains Rice. "I was going to be so well prepared, and I was going to do all of these things that were revered in white society so well, that I would be armored somehow from racism. I would be able to confront white society on its own terms."
The Rev. John W. Rice Jr. and his schoolteacher wife, Angelena, were well equipped for this mission. Both were descended from ancestors who, going back to slavery, seized on education as the way up and out. John Rice, as a preacher and high school guidance counselor, was an "education evangelist," in his daughter's eyes, inspiring the poor as well as the more privileged to pursue college.
"He wanted us to have every advantage a child could have," remembers Eva Carter, a disciple of his at church and at school. "If the kids in Mountain Brook had it, we were going to have it."
Mountain Brook, as it happens, is where I grew up. I am two years older than Condoleezza Rice, and as young girls we witnessed the same transformational history from opposite sides of the color line. People have asked if we knew each other, a natural enough question, except that in our case it's preposterous. As Martin Luther King famously wrote in 1963 from our city jail, Birmingham was "probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States."
Mountain Brook was a lily-white suburb, its very name synonymous with money and privilege. Rice's neighborhood of Titusville was proudly ascendant, the first subdivision built for a rising, postwar black middle class.
This was a time and place that shaped everyone born into it. Our generation started life in a world where "colored" and "white" signs demarcated every public space, where the Ku Klux Klan bombed dozens of black homes and churches with impunity, and where history, money and police power conspired mightily against change. And then that world crumbled before our eyes.
I saw all this much as history now portrays it a mass movement of the powerless, coupled with the force of federal law, triumphing over oppression.
Condi Rice saw it differently. In her own family, she says, liberation came not through a movement but from generations of ancestors navigating oppression with individual will, wits and, eventually, wallets long before King or the federal government took up the cause. It is one of her frustrations, she says, that people routinely assume she was beaten down or deprived as a child until the civil rights movement arrived. "My family is third-generation college-educated," she says with proud defiance. "I should've gotten to where I am."