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.

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."

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.

"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.

"I think that black Americans of my grandparents' ilk had liberated themselves," she says. "They had broken the code. They had figured out how to make an extraordinarily comfortable and fulfilling life despite the circumstances. They did not feel that they were captives."

This history gives Rice a strong sense of blackness, but also some discomfort with being identified as African American. She says the term suggests to her that blacks are just another immigrant group, like Italian Americans, Mexican Americans or Japanese Americans.

"It isn't an immigrant story. It's a different story," she says. "We have a language for dealing with immigration, but not with race, where we came to this country together but with blacks enslaved. I often talk about how when America was founded it had a birth defect, with slavery. It was there from the beginning . . .

"I know the motivation for 'African American' was to connect black Americans with the African heritage, and that part I applaud," she says. "But it implies a pure connection to Africa that doesn't go through the experiences of slavery or a mixing of the blood."

In other words, it leaves Condoleezza Rice out of the story.

From inside her parents' modest, two-bedroom bungalow at the corner of Center Way and Ninth Terrace, Condi Rice saw herself as just one of the girls. All her playmates lived in an all black, upwardly mobile world. From school to church to ballet classes, they all had the same watchwords -- "twice as good," which meant you had to be twice as good as white kids to pull even (three times as good to pass them).

Racism was always there, "but so there -- there all the time -- that you ceased to notice its existence," Rice recalls. If children asked about it, she and her friends remember, grown-ups often responded, "Don't worry about it. It's not your problem."

"The focus was on hard work, striving to be best, not allowing ourselves to be sorry, never, ever seeing ourselves as victims," recalls Freeman Hrabowski, then an honor student protege of John Rice's at Ullman High, now president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

John Rice was a player in many families' dreams for their children, according to another daughter of black Birmingham educators -- Alma Powell, wife of Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose uncle happened to be the Ullman principal. She remembers hearing her uncle and father, also a principal, speak often of "this fine young man they were so lucky to have in Birmingham."

"Rev," as the boys called him, ran a youth fellowship known widely as a one-stop antidote to the deprivations of segregation. He brought in the best teachers from the Negro school system to make sure his kids knew their stuff; gave lessons in chess, ping-pong and the waltz; led trips to the art museum. The beefy former football coach also organized after-school sports. And on weekends, when black kids had few places to gather, he threw co-ed dances, a brash departure from the conduct code of Negro ministers, but parents didn't worry because the jovial counselor-reverend chaperoned them himself.

Condi Rice adored him. She became a pint-size football aficionado at his knee, and proclaimed confidently to her neighbor, Carolyn Hunter, "When I grow up I'm going to marry a professional football player!"

Rice remembers seething at well-off parishioners who threatened to revolt when her father recruited kids from housing proj-ects -- "the wrong kind," in the opponents' words -- to his youth fellowship. "My father hated classism," she says. She clucks her tongue in disgust at the memory of one church elder who warned, "These kids won't know how to behave!"

"His view was, 'These kids could be like yours,' " she says. "That was his focus on education."

It was also his view of religion. "You're cared about, you're guided, you can never fall too far, and if you do, there's a personal faith to pick you up," is how she says he explained God to all children.

But for all the focus on ties that bind, Condi Rice lived a life apart. With few leisure or entertainment outlets open to blacks, other families had as much money to spend, but few lavished it so purposefully on a child. Besides piano lessons with her grandmother, who was a classical pianist, she took dance, flute, violin and French.

Her friends across the street, Carole Smitherman and Vanessa Hunter, remember waiting for what seemed like hours for her to finish her latest Beethoven or Mozart and come outside. The three girls loved playing school in the Hunters' garage, where Vanessa's father, an architect, had erected a grand chalkboard. Condi's favorite role was teacher, standing at the blackboard, chalk and book in hand, lecturing an assemblage of girls and dolls.

But even as she acted out little-girl fantasies, her parents had their eyes on their prize. Carolyn Hunter, Vanessa's mother, remembers closing the garage door one summer day to keep out mosquitoes, when Condi stopped her: "'Miz Hunter, if you let the door down, I'll have to go home.' "

"I said, 'Why, baby?' " Hunter recalls, "and she said, 'My mama can't watch me.' "

"It was great being my parents' daughter, but sometimes it was terrible," Rice confesses. She remembers a variety show in grade school for which she and other girls planned to dress up as the Supremes. "And my father decided it was undignified," she says. Her parents arranged instead for her to tap dance -- "by myself!" -- which she'd never done. "They went and hired a tap dance teacher. I had this peculiar outfit, and my father stood there by the stage with his arms crossed to make sure nobody laughed," she says. "That's the way my parents were. I was always supposed to do something different and special, and slightly more refined."

The only place most black children encountered whites was downtown, where elaborate Jim Crow laws maintained distance amid proximity -- always at the expense of black dignity. Parents of Rice's friends recall the anguish of having children ask, "Why?" -- then having to explain it was because their skin was black.

"It used to hurt my heart," Carolyn Hunter says, closing her eyes as if feeling the pain again. "You had to take it to God, and sometimes it seemed like even He wasn't listening," says Doris Mitchell, whose two daughters were friends of Condi's.

All of which makes Angelena Rice's stand in the fitting room door even more remarkable. And it was not her only stand. Condi Rice recalls another shopping trip when she saw a pretty hat and was touching it admiringly, when a white saleswoman snapped, as if addressing a dog, "Get your hands off that!" In an instant, Angelena Rice was warning the woman through clenched teeth, "Don't talk to my daughter that way," then lovingly instructing her little girl, "Condoleezza, go touch every hat in this store." Rice happily complied.

Besides nerves of steel, Angelena Rice had a strategic grasp of the power of her purse. She even took her daughter shopping in Mountain Brook -- where black people rarely appeared except as servants -- and bought clothes at the exclusive Canterbury Shop, specializing in "fine children's wear."

Indeed, class took the edge off race, even then. "We didn't have riffraff of any color. We attracted the cream," remembers Bernard Goldstein, one of the owners. "We did have a few black customers, and they were educated people, people of means, like our white customers. We were happy to have them. They wanted the best. They weren't looking for bargains."

Perhaps nothing more powerfully illustrates the independence of Rice's mind-set than her attitude toward the most dazzling children's scene in Birmingham -- Kiddieland. It wasn't special by today's standards, but Ferris wheels, bumper cars and carousels constituted a wonderland in our sooty steel town. A whites-only wonderland, that is.

"I'd cry every time I passed there," Freeman Hrabowski recalls. "I'd ask my parents, 'Why can't we go?' The children looked like they were having the time of their lives. Imagine a child seeing that and not being able to go in."

King even referenced Kiddieland in his famous Letter From Birmingham Jail: "You suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see the tears welling up in her little eyes . . . and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky . . ."

But Kiddieland never darkened Condi Rice's mental sky. "All of us knew Kiddieland was off limits," she says. "I don't remember being distressed. I never was one much for fairs or theme parks." Besides, she remembers a friend's father telling her Kiddieland was nothing special. "He said, 'You don't want to go to Kiddieland. We'll go to Disneyland.' "

When the civil rights movement came to Birmingham, the Rice family -- like middle-class blacks in general -- kept its distance.

Condi Rice says her father embraced its goals, but not its means. "My father was not a march-in-the-street preacher," she says. He strenuously opposed the tactic that ultimately broke white business resistance to ending segregation in stores downtown -- recruiting children to march into police commissioner Bull Connor's phalanx of officers, police dogs and fire hoses, and overflow the jails. "He saw no reason to put children at risk," Rice says. "He would never put his own child at risk."

"If we'd waited for the middle class to lead us, we'd still be waiting," says the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, now 79, who led the local movement from Bethel Baptist Church, a poor and working-class flock.

As throngs of children headed for the streets, Eva Carter, then an Ullman student, took John Rice's advice not to join them. "There's a better way," she remembers him saying. "I want you to fight with your mind."

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."

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."

John Rice then did what black fathers all over Birmingham were doing -- what Alma Powell remembers her own father doing then, when she happened to be home with her babies during her husband's tour in Vietnam: They got out their shotguns and formed nightly patrols, guarding the streets themselves.

"This is very powerful, very elemental stuff in Condi," says her longtime friend and fellow foreign policy scholar at Stanford University, Coit Blacker. "It was about coming to understand that the world was more complex and more dangerous than she was led to believe in this highly sheltered existence in the black bourgeoisie of Birmingham."

None of this affected her immediately, Rice says. She says she now realizes she learned to navigate racial barriers on one level as if they weren't there, while on another building impregnable defenses against racism. She sees even shopping expeditions with her mother to the finest stores in this context -- a connection that she says crystallized for her in a Holocaust museum on a recent trip to Israel. She was studying a photograph depicting an immaculately dressed Jewish couple amid the misery of the Warsaw Ghetto when someone asked, "What do you think that's about?" The answer spilled out of her: "I know what that's about. That's about control. Your outward image is critical to reminding people that you still have control. They're not diminishing your humanity."

Blacker says he believes Rice's Birmingham experience gave her a "pre-sentiment" for threats to her control of a situation. "There's a preemptive quality to this when she sees it, and she just slaps it down," he says, illustrating with a story of a Christmas shopping expedition at Stanford Shopping Center that eerily echoes Rice's recollections of buying clothes with her mother.

"We were at a jewelry counter at Macy's, and Condi asked to see the better earrings," Blacker says. "The clerk pulled out the costume jewelry, and Condi said, 'I didn't ask to see the costume jewelry; I asked to see the good jewelry.' The young woman said something she thought we couldn't hear, but Condi heard it. Let's say it started with a 'b.' Condi said, 'Excuse me?' The young woman didn't answer.

"And Condi said, 'Let's get one thing straight. You're behind the counter because you have to work for $6 an hour. I'm on this side asking to see the good jewelry because I make considerably more. And I'm asking to see the good jewelry.' "

With that, the department manager appeared, apologized profusely, and showed Rice the good jewelry.

The Birmingham Condi Rice and I grew up in changed after the church bombing. National revulsion at the crime helped galvanize support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and legal segregation was officially dismantled with a stroke of President Lyndon Johnson's pen. Rice remembers watching the news at home with her parents that night, as a local anchorman announced passage of "the so-called Civil Rights Act."

Her parents waited only a few days before demonstrating the power of the law to their young daughter, escorting her to a fancy, formerly whites-only restaurant downtown. As they walked to the hostess station, white people at white-clothed tables looked up one by one, forks stopped midway between china dishes and mouths -- a real-life freeze frame as the old order crumbled. Moments later, a maitre d' approached and led the Rices to a table. "They all went back to eating. And that was it," Rice says.

I have my own recollection. My father, a doctor and a rare white advocate of integration, told us at dinner one night of having put the first white patient in a room with a black patient at the university hospital. Clerks had unspoken orders to integrate only the floors, not the rooms. Only one bed was free that morning -- in a semiprivate room with a black man -- and my father insisted they give it to his patient, who was white, and who desperately needed care.

My father had worked all night on his patient in the emergency room and was escorting him to his bed when the man -- barely out of death's clutches, trailing tubes and monitors -- somehow mustered the strength to declare, "Doc, I'd rather die than be in a room with this nigger!"

"If you really mean that, if you'd really rather die than be in a room with this man," my father answered, "I can pull these tubes out, and you can go home, and you can die." My father left to make rounds, returning hours later. "It doesn't really bother me, Doc," his patient said sheepishly. "I was just thinking of what my friends would say."

I remember being awed, at age 11, that a law could neutralize someone's hatred. This is how I saw the white South change -- men and women, one at a time, forced into proximity with black people, realizing (often in amazement) that they could adjust. I took from experiences like this a respect for the government's power to do good.

From my all-white, staunchly segregationist suburb, I viewed black Birmingham as helpless without the Civil Rights Act. "It wasn't," Rice says emphatically.

"Lyndon Johnson was a revered figure in my home," she says. "I had a chance to tell Lyndon Johnson's daughter that we all are enormously grateful to him for finally taking the laws off the books. The legal changes made a tremendous difference, but not in the absence of people who were already prepared to take advantage of them, and therefore took full advantage of them. You can't write them out of the story."

Condi Rice left Birmingham at age 11, when her father became dean of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa. Two years later, he became an administrator at the University of Denver, and the family moved there, where Rice entered her first integrated school -- a private Catholic academy -- and continued her twice-as-good regimen, becoming a competitive ice skater, a competitive tennis player and an even more accomplished pianist.

In 1970, as a freshman at the University of Denver, she remembers, she was one of perhaps two or three blacks in a lecture hall of 250 students when a professor began to explain -- and embrace -- Stanford physicist William Shockley's incendiary theory of white genetic superiority to blacks in intelligence. Within seconds she was on her feet, taking on the professor with what she suddenly realized was her strongest ammunition -- herself. "I'm the one who speaks French," she asserted. "I'm the one who plays Beethoven. I'm better at your culture than you are. This can be taught!"

"It was leaving that class that it occurred to me that I think that had been my mother and father's strategy," Rice says. "You had to be better at their culture than they were. Recognize that you're always going to be judged more harshly. They made certain I was never going to be found wanting."

It was also at Denver that Rice became convinced she would never reach the top echelon of the music world, and switched her major in her senior year to international relations. The inspiration was a course taught by Josef Korbel -- the Czech refugee from communism whose daughter, Madeleine Albright, would become America's first female secretary of state. Rice describes her fascination with Soviet studies -- in particular, Korbel's lecture on Joseph Stalin -- as "love at first sight," and the charismatic Korbel as "one of the most central figures in my life, next to my parents." After graduating with top academic honors, and getting a master's degree at Notre Dame, Rice was considering law school until Korbel recruited her into Denver's graduate school of international relations, which he founded. "You are very talented," she remembers him saying. "You have to become a professor." She earned her PhD at Denver and dedicated her first book, The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, to her parents and, posthumously, to Korbel "in memory of his love for Czechoslovakia."

Arriving at Stanford as a fellow at its Center for International Security and Arms Control, Rice became an assistant professor at 26, and won its highest award for excellence in teaching at 29. The year was 1984, and she was briefly a foreign policy adviser to the insurgent Democratic presidential campaign of then-Sen. Gary Hart. Introduced to Rice by Blacker, who was on his staff, Hart recalls being dazzled by "her intellect and charm -- charm in the profound sense, not the silly sense. And I'd add a third dimension: inner strength."

Two years later, it was Brent Scowcroft's turn to have Hart's head-turning reaction. He was at a Stanford dinner with arms control experts, when, in his words, "this young slip of a girl" -- she was the only woman, the only black and the youngest person there -- asked a "brilliant question" involving international law and "absolutely captivated me." He invited her to join a foreign policy group at the Aspen Institute.

Rice's parents' strategy obviously was paying off. Her intelligence, curiosity, stunning self-possession and physical attractiveness were impossible to overlook -- particularly in combination with her race, gender and distinctly Southern charm. "There are lots of experts on national security policy, and mostly they're white males, and to be honest, some are not very pleasant to be around," says Hart.

Connie Rice, the civil rights lawyer, says white people's attraction to her cousin is more complex than they realize. "Our parents knew black people faced a presumption of inarticulateness," she says, "and what they did was they programmed us to know: These folks have a disability, they think they're better than you, but here's how to deal with it. Condi and I speak the king's English to the queen's taste. We're fluent in all kinds of white cultures. We float right through them. But there are very few interracially fluent whites. I'll have a meeting with white people and they'll say, 'I love Connie.' And I'm thinking, 'You have no idea what I've done to make you feel comfortable, to neutralize your racist expectations.' Condi does it to a tee. And white people don't notice. Condi won't agree. She'll think it's too race-centric. But the endgame is the same: She neutralizes it."

Condi Rice sees this less in terms of race than strategic thinking. "I'm not naive," she says. "I know that race is a factor, and I know that racism is a factor. But I've always thought once you've said that, where does it leave you? You need a strategy to deal with it."

Younger black scholars whom Rice has mentored say her approach demands extraordinary mental discipline. Kiron Skinner, a political scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, recalls asking Rice how to handle what she perceived as racial unfairness as a Harvard graduate student in the mid-1980s. "She never allowed me to have that discussion in any extended way," Skinner says. "I think she believed what I was saying, and accepted that there was merit to it, but she just kept refocusing me on my work, and what I wanted to accomplish. She was very young -- maybe 32 -- but she was thinking about it like a military general. I remember she said, 'If you don't prevail on one front, you move to another.' "

At last year's GOP presidential nominating convention, Rice spoke memorably of how her father, "the first Republican I knew," came to join the party: "Demo-crats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did. My father has never forgotten that day, and neither have I."

The full story is much more complex. Then as now, county registrars, not political parties, registered Alabama voters, although Democrats then controlled the registrars, along with all other offices. Like many blacks, John Rice was given an "eligibility test" designed to prevent anyone from passing. On some tests, the question was, "Who was Thomas Jefferson's great grandmother?" Sometimes it was "How many windows are there in the courthouse?" In John Rice's case, a white clerk showed him a jar of jelly beans, and asked how many were in it.

Rice says her father later learned of a Republican functionary in the registrar's office who would register blacks secretly, as long as they registered as Republicans -- not the expansive grant of suffrage suggested in her speech. In Alabama at the time, voting Republican effectively meant voting in one race every four years -- for president -- because the state GOP was so weak that all other elections effectively ended with the Democratic primary. Rice says her father likely would have registered as a Democrat, had he had the choice.

Rice herself voted for a Democrat in the first presidential election in which she was eligible, casting her ballot for Jimmy Carter in 1976. She voted for Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980, largely out of distress with what she considered naive statements by Carter about the Soviet Union. In 1984 Hart's farsighted military reform agenda attracted her, although by then, Blacker says, it was clear to him, from joint appearances on arms control panels, that she was "more comfortable" in the Republican Party.

It was also clear to another Stanford colleague, Russia expert Michael McFaul, who remembers Rice telling him she opposed gun control and even gun registration because Bull Connor could have used it to disarm her father and others who patrolled Titusville in 1963. "For me as a liberal, pro-gun control person, it really hit me over the head," McFaul says. "I remember thinking, 'Who are we as white liberals to respond?' "

Rice says it was the issue of race that repelled her from the Democratic Party for good -- for reasons that echo the lessons she draws from her family narrative. She remembers watching the 1984 Democratic National Convention that nominated Walter Mondale for president, and recoiling at what seemed to her an endless refrain of appeals to "women, minorities and the poor, which basically means helpless people and the poor."

"If I heard it one more time!" she says, still fuming. "I decided I'd rather be ignored than patronized."

In 1988, Rice received a call from Madeleine Albright, her mentor's daughter, suggesting they work together on

Democrat Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign. The two women had never met, but Albright says she knew of Rice's bond with Albright's refugee father, who was an impassioned believer in government's responsibility to right society's wrongs, and assumed from that -- and Rice's roots in segregated Birmingham -- that she was a Democrat.

Albright remembers the uncomfortable silence. "Madeleine, I don't know how to tell you this," Rice finally answered. "I'm a Republican."

Later that year, President-elect George H.W. Bush named Scowcroft his national security adviser, and Scowcroft asked Rice to join him. She readily accepted, and was his director for Soviet and East European affairs as communism fell, so impressing Bush that he announced to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, "She tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union." By now an ardent Republican, Rice returned to Stanford in 1991 and in 1993 was named provost -- the first woman, first black and, at 38, the youngest person to hold the post. Stepping down in 1999, she received another offer -- from George W. Bush, governor of Texas, seeking a tutor in foreign policy. Rice was en route back to a Republican White House.

The morning sun streams through the West Wing windows into Rice's prestigious corner office, onto book-lined shelves, a tall sailing ship encased in glass and an American flag. On the walls are photographs of Rice with President Bush, Rice with Secretary of State Powell and two paintings by African American artists -- one a New England landscape, another a black revival service.

Dressed impeccably in a forest green dress and jacket, and matching gold earrings and necklace, Rice sits in a blue armchair, the White House front lawn and the Old Executive Office Building framed in the picture windows around her. The phone rings. "Yes, Mr. President," the national security adviser answers. "I'll see where that is. Is that when you'd like to have it? I understand. Yes sir. Will do."

Rice's White House office feels a long way from Birmingham, but she is closer than she appears, as she helps Bush chart the course of the world's sole superpower. Rice defines foreign policy strictly in terms of U.S. strategic and national interests, a view Bush has invoked in recent months as he announced plans to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and rejected global agreements to control greenhouse gases and to ban nuclear testing and germ warfare. As critics at home and abroad accused the United States of an arrogant effort to "go it alone," Bush tapped the soloist of Titusville to go before the cameras and explain America's separate course. "This is going to be an engaged internationalist administration," Rice said recently on CBS's "Face the Nation," "but it will not be an administration that signs on to treaties that are not in America's interest."

One of Rice's defining ideas -- now Bush's idea -- is that the U.S. military should refrain from what she and Bush disparage as "nation-building," or what supporters of that idea call helping nations develop democracy and rule of law. In Rice's view, the world's greatest democracy cannot, and should not, do for strife-riven peoples what they can't do for themselves.

This seems to be a page out of her own experience, and her lifelong view that her grandparents liberated themselves well before the federal government stepped in. She appears surprised by the suggestion, and then, after a moment of thought, responds: "It's the same idea. The responsibility rests with the people who live there."

Her mind leaps from the fall of segregation to the fall of communism.

"Poland is a wonderful example. I was just there, and I spent the whole time choked up and teary," she says of her trip with Bush in June. "That's a case where the legal framework shifted dramatically. But it freed the Poles to do what the Poles were able to do. It didn't fix it for them. In a sense, the civil rights laws did the same thing. It freed people who were enterprising and tough and prepared to fully achieve, but it didn't provide them with that sense of entrepreneurship or that sense of pride or that toughness."

Rice's personal history also shapes her perspective on emerging democracies, giving her a longer view than some others of their shortcomings. "This democracy was imperfect at birth," she says of the United States, "and it's important to talk to people who are struggling to build democracy and let them know that the United States didn't grow full blown with a black secretary of state. It took a while to get there."

Rice was interviewed twice in person and twice by phone for this article. One interview came the morning after the White House secured the release of the crew of the damaged U.S. spy plane that had made an emergency landing in China. Rice was interrupted several times for meetings about the episode, returning each time to the blue armchair, as focused on her family history as if there had been no distractions.

She becomes more engaged the more she explores the subject. She flashes the same pride and determination describing her grandparents' lonely odyssey out of the plantation South as she does in defending the separate course Bush is charting for the United States in the world.

Rice is a friend as well as adviser to Bush, and he consults her often on issues of race and education, which also take her back to Birmingham. She didn't coin Bush's slogan for what ails urban schools -- "the soft bigotry of low expectations" -- but she says it instantly grab-bed her. "Exactly right!" the daughter of John and Angelena Rice recalls thinking when she first heard it.

Rice talks with feeling about "the witches' brew of race and class" that hampers minorities born in poverty, but she does not view government as the cure. As her father counseled in 1963, her way out is "to fight with your mind." She says almost all her philanthropy goes to historically black colleges and to programs for school children in impoverished districts. As Stanford provost, Rice helped found an after-school program in neighboring, desperately poor East Palo Alto in which about 125 children in grades 2 through 8 receive daily tutoring, music instruction and academic acceleration toward a college track. The approach mirrors her father's enrichment program of the 1960s, but she acknowledges the context is more daunting.

"One of these children's teachers once said to me, 'The world you're talking about doesn't exist for my kids. They have no chance in life,' " Rice says. "I said, 'I hope that's not what you say to them.' "

A girl in the program once approached her, she says, asking if Rice thought the girl would succeed. Rice says the girl clearly expected to fail: "She was quoting me statistics. She said 65 percent of the kids in her district never finish high school."

One could almost hear John Rice -- and many Ray and Rice ancestors -- speaking through Condi Rice in the answer she says she gave: "What makes you think you have to be in that 65 percent?"

Given her respect for the long line of strong parents and grandparents who produced her, I asked Rice, who is single, if she ever felt obligated to continue the bloodline.

"You mean, did I ever want kids?" she asks, with a pained look, then a laugh. No, comes her answer. "I think maybe it's because I'm an only child. I like children, but especially when they're 18." She laughs some more.

The next day she telephones to elaborate. "I didn't start out not to get married and have children . . . I don't regret that I couldn't pass on some of my genes, which sounds to me incredibly narcissistic," she says, "but that I couldn't pass on some of the opportunities." She remembers talking to her father about the East Palo Alto program, and saying, "Those are sort of my kids -- all 125 of them."

As often as Rice talks about her advantages, she does not view her odyssey as the privileged one some have suggested. "Some of it was class," is as far as she will go. Much of it also was religious faith, she says.

"But a lot of it was just parents," she says. "Every night I pray and say thank you that You gave me the parents You gave me. How fortunate was I to have these extraordinary people as my parents. I do think they had a sense of wanting to make me special from a very early age."

Angelena Rice died of cancer in 1985. John Rice died last December, severely weakened by heart disease, but aware on his deathbed that President-elect Bush had named his daughter national security adviser.

In March, Condi Rice returned to Birmingham for her father's memorial service. Until that day, I never had seen her father's church or her neighborhood, although I must have passed them as a child. I found a seat beside an older black woman, who turned out to be Carolyn Hunter, the Rices' former across-the-street-neighbor.

Later she invited me back to her house with her daughter Vanessa. They showed me old photographs, and I was stopped by one of Vanessa and Condi in the winter of 1962, posing proudly beside a snowman they'd made. I told them I have a picture of myself beside a snowman I made that same day. It had to have been the same day, because there was only one day in our entire childhood that it snowed enough to build a snowman.

All at once, all three of us had the same thought: In that time of hate and separateness, nature stopped everything for a day, and every child, regardless of race, responded in exactly the same way.

In Birmingham, the past is always present. It can be disorienting to think about how much has changed. The downtown department stores that once enshrined white supremacy in every water fountain and dressing room stand empty -- out of business or long gone to the suburbs, their peeling hulks like ghosts of a way of life that failed the test of time. A few blocks north and west is the city's only remaining set of "colored" and "white" drinking fountains -- artifacts in the acclaimed Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, now a historic landmark.

The city that was 60 percent white when Condi Rice and I were born is now 74 percent black, its schools almost as segregated as in 1963 -- now because so few whites remain in the city's public schools. Now as then, the state of Alabama has among the nation's lowest rates of public investment in education.

On the Sunday of her visit, Rice's neighborhood looked much as she and her parents left it in 1966. It remains solidly middle class and black. The churches were full, each with an epigram posted out front: "To live without God is to die without hope." "In the dark, see the Son." "Little sins add up to big troubles."

Inside the Westminster Presbyterian Church, the pews were filled with retired teachers who had worked with John Rice in segregated schools and with their twice-as-good students.

As the organist played "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," the Rice and Ray families walked in -- men in fine gray suits, women in handsome, dark-hued dresses. Ever her mother's daughter, Condi Rice wore the most beautiful outfit of all -- a dark taupe suit with tunic-length jacket and black leather heels.

People spoke of John Rice in many contexts, but in one voice. "Education is such a development of our faculties and our powers as enables us to be masters wherever we are placed -- masters of ourselves and masters of our condition," was the way the Rev. Jonathan McPherson recalled Rice's effect on him as a high school teacher in the early 1950s. McPherson went on to earn a PhD in chemistry and to march with King.

Carole Smitherman, now a 49-year-old attorney, read off the achievements of some of the children of John Rice's fellowship: "We are now chemists, reporters for major newspapers around the world, president of a university, college professors and administrators, government workers, computer analysts, politicians, doctors, lawyers, musicians, a meteorologist, ministers and even the national security adviser for the president of the United States."

Condi Rice was in tears when Smitherman finished, but by the time she ascended her father's former pulpit to speak, she was well composed. She recalled that his three great passions were God, family and education. "It didn't matter where you came from," she said. "What mattered was where you were going. Even if Birmingham was a place of limited horizons for black children, it should still be a place of unlimited dreams."

Her White House schedule left little time for lingering -- arrival Saturday, overnight with Uncle Alto and Aunt Connie, breakfast with friends and family, followed by the memorial service. Rice hugged people by the dozens, waving and smiling widely as she headed for the luxury car that would whisk her to the airport. She slid into the back seat, scooping a pile of briefing books into her lap. As the car pulled away, her head was deep in her books, but the fingers of her right hand still were waving, as if playing piano in the air.

Dale Russakoff is a national news reporter for The Post. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.