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Lessons of Might and Right

This is a rare educational pedigree for our generation, rarer still among blacks from Birmingham. Mentioning it is Rice's way of stopping people in their mental tracks, signaling that she is not what they expect, that her Birmingham story is very different from the one they know. She may have grown up in segregation. She may have had a friend who died in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. But nothing in that history, as she lived it, makes her uncomfortable in the white male bastion of national security – or, for that matter, in the Republican Party.

To many black leaders, hers is a perspective skewed by privilege and naivete. But to Rice, it is the truth, and it is ingrained in her in ways she says she continues to discover – from her fierce independence, to her skepticism of big government, to her view of America's role in the world, even to her enduring love of pretty dresses. "Childhood matters," she says.

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." (Greg Miller)

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"IT'S AN EXTRAORDINARY STORY, how you come out of such an oppressive system with a sense of self."

That isn't Condi Rice talking. It's Connie Rice, her second cousin. But such is the power of the family narrative that their accounts are almost interchangeable. Connie Rice, 44, is a leading civil rights attorney in Los Angeles, and remarkably like her second cousin in temperament and outlook. Connie Rice is neither Republican nor Democratic. She sues large institutions like the L.A. police department and school district on behalf of poor people. Her issue, perhaps not surprisingly, is empowerment.

"Our grandfathers had this indomitable outlook," says Connie Rice. "It went: Racism is the way of the world, but it's got nothing to do with your mission, which is to be the best damned whatever-you're-going-to-be in the world. Life was a regimen: Read a book a day. Religion, religion, religion. The Rices were kind of joyless except for Condi's dad. But if there's one thing about Rice kids, there is nothing crushed about us – not our spirit, not our intellect, nothing. We just can't be conquered."

On both sides of her family, Condi Rice is descended from white slave owners as well as black slaves; and the slaves were mostly "house slaves," as opposed to "field slaves," according to Connie Rice. This gave them proximity to privilege, and they used it to become educated, the family says – an imperative they passed like a torch through the generations.

At the Republican National Convention last summer, Condi Rice proudly told the story of "Granddaddy Rice," who made his way from the south Alabama cotton fields to college in 1918, when even black high schools were a rarity. Born Methodist – one of nine children of former house slaves who became tenant farmers after emancipation – he was reborn a Presbyterian when he learned scholarships were available to nearby Stillman College, a white-run seminary that trained black men as Presbyterian ministers. The church later sent him to Birmingham to found Westminster Presbyterian Church, where he made a mission of helping his flock send children to college, particularly Stillman.

Every year at exam time he traveled to the campus by bus (he did not own a car) to advocate for students whose unpaid tuition bills otherwise would have disqualified them from taking finals, recalls Evelyn Glover, one of his beneficiaries.

"I can see him even now, walking stern and erect to the president's door," says Glover, straightening her back as if to evoke the old Christian soldier. "You did not see that back then – a black man at a white man's front door. And they'd let him in! And whatever he said, it worked, because I never knew a student he helped who didn't have an opportunity to take those exams, and I know our parents didn't have the money."

A similarly impregnable sense of self traveled undiluted, through slavery and segregation, in Angelena Rice's bloodline. "Always remember, you're a Ray!" Condi Rice still can hear her maternal grandfather, Albert Robinson Ray III, instructing her and her cousins.

"That meant: You have control, you're proud, you have integrity, nobody can take those things away from you," Rice translates.

Race was not mentioned in this message, but it was implicit. Albert Ray III was the son of a white plantation owner and a favored black servant from an educated family. His mother had two sisters who were among the first nursing graduates at nearby Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington with a vision like Rice's ancestors' – progress through education, self-reliance and patience.

Albert Ray left home as a boy, determined never to allow segregation to define his self-worth, according to his surviving children. In their youth in the 1930s and '40s, they say, other black children routinely cooked and cleaned for white families to augment family income. But not Rays. Others drank from "colored" fountains and used "colored" latrines. But not Rays.

"Daddy told us, 'Wait till you get home to drink. Wait till you get home to go to the bathroom.' If you had to go in the back door, we just wouldn't go," says his son Alto Ray, Condi Rice's closest uncle. "As a matter of fact, I never got on a bus, a segregated bus, in my life."

Unlike most blacks in Birmingham, Albert Ray could afford a car. He was a coal miner at 18 but soon founded his own blacksmithing business, and later built homes. He and his wife put all five of their children through college. "I may have worked in the mines," he said often. "My children will not."

Rice acknowledges that her ancestors had advantages within their disadvantage, but she believes these came from self-reliance, not privilege.


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