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Lessons of Might and Right

In the eyes of the Rev. C. Herbert Oliver, a Birmingham civil rights leader at the time, this was a perspective of privilege. "The middle-class Negro was doing quite well," he says. "They had jobs. They could shop. But they were not there to create the change so jobs could become available. We'd still be in a bad way if we'd followed that alone."

Condi Rice believes segregation was collapsing of its own weight before federal law dismantled it – a view she says she shared recently with official visitors from Northern Ireland. "I said I felt that segregation had become not just a real moral problem, but it had become a real pain in the neck for some [white] people," she says. "People had begun to make their own little accommodations."

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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She recalls a visit with her parents to a white doctor when her mother had a bronchial infection. Dressed finely, as always, the trio arrived to find a well-appointed reception area, where white people were sitting. The receptionist sent them upstairs to the "colored waiting room," a cramped, dark space with peeling paint. But after the appointment, Rice recalls, the doctor walked them to his main reception area and said, "Reverend Rice, when you come back, why don't you come in after 5 o'clock on Saturday? You could come right in here."

Rice says she never thought of the doctor's offer as a concession to her parents' class. "This was about race, not class," she says. What, then, of the blacks left behind in the colored waiting room? She pauses, as if revisiting a scene long fixed in her memory. "Well, it was about class, too," she says.

Harold Jackson, one of the Birmingham housing project recruits to John Rice's youth fellowship, says he and his widowed mother and four brothers sat in colored waiting rooms until the bitter end, and never thought of protesting.

"Not until I became an adult did I think about being taken to an alley to go to the bathroom downtown," says Jackson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing at the Birmingham News and now is an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I never thought about the fact that there were buildings, and there had to be bathrooms in them. I don't remember asking why I had to go outside. I certainly now, in retrospect, remember riding on the back of the bus. But I never thought about it at the time. We faced a lot of things, often without explanation."

Of Rice's experiences, he says, "The way to overcome was with money. The idea always was: If you spend enough money with a white person, they'll be cordial. Money is the conqueror."

As marchers filled the streets and the jails in May 1963, John Rice knew well that history was being made, and he made sure his daughter witnessed it, albeit from a safe distance. She remembers riding at age 8 with him to watch demonstrations from a few blocks away, and later to the state fairgrounds, where arrested youths were being held temporarily. Many of them were his students, and he walked the crowd making sure they were safe, with his little girl high atop his broad shoulders.

Among the arrested students were Hrabowski and George Hunter III, the brother of Rice's across-the-street friend Vanessa. The boys had parents like the Rices, who had college degrees and raised their children to spurn thoughts of victimhood. But both now say going to jail with King to end segregation was their ultimate liberation.

Carolyn Hunter remembers picking up her telephone to hear her son's voice from the city jail. "I told him I'd put up my house to get him out," Hunter says. "He said, 'Don't, Mama. I can take it. I'm tired of sitting at the back of the bus.' "

–––

ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 1963, at 10:24 a.m., a powerful dynamite bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Beneath the rubble were four small bodies, stacked atop one another like lumber. Four girls, ages 11 to 14. Denise McNair, the youngest, had been Condi Rice's schoolmate and friend – a fellow star of the neighborhood's twice-as-good generation. Cynthia Wesley was that smart, popular girl who always stood out at youth fellowship meetings.

Rice remembers hearing the thunderous explosion, even two miles away, feeling the earth shudder under her father's church, watching someone stagger in with the barest details – "a terrible event, a bombing at Sixteenth Street Church." She's not sure when she learned about Denise, or Cynthia, although she remembers how very small the caskets looked as the funeral procession passed by.

In white Birmingham, the carnage of innocents dealt the death blow to a long, unspoken partnership between the business elite and segregation's vigilante enforcers. It would take 14 years for the first suspect to come to trial, but even so, Klan leaders knew their glory days were numbered, and they disavowed the bombers as breakaway extremists.

For the children of Titusville, the terror was overpowering. All four victims had heard the assurances they had heard: "Don't worry about it. It's not your problem."

Now it was.

Rice remembers being frightened, by not only the church bombing but many others before and after. By this time, Birmingham was known to the world as Bombingham. One bomb devastated the home of the Rices' friend Arthur Shores, a prominent black lawyer for civil rights causes. A firebomb was tossed in Titusville, but didn't go off. Rice's father went to police headquarters to demand an investigation. "They didn't investigate," she says. "They never investigated."

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