In an interview with Rev. Al Sharpton, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shared her experiences growing up in Birmingham, Ala., during the height of the civil rights movement.
“Well growing up in Birmingham, which was clearly the most segregated big city in America and a place in 1962 and ‘63 would be called ‘Bombingham’ because it was so violent,” she told Rev. Sharpton. “It was like living in a parallel world. We didn’t interact with whites, I didn’t have white friends. But we did have in our little middle class neighborhood, families, parents, and teachers who cared about letting us see that there were no limits in our horizons.
She remembers vividly the day the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four young girls about her age.
“My dad’s church was only about two miles from 16th Street Baptist Church, and so it was like the ground shook,” she said. “And for kids in Birmingham my age, I was eight, it was–how could these people hate us so much?”
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was far from her only brush with violence.
“My father and his friends formed a brigade to keep the community safe. We lived in kind of cul-de-sac, and they would go to the head of each parts of the cul-de-sac, and they had their shifts—with their weapons out there to keep Night Riders out of the community—I don’t think they ever actually shot anybody, but they shot their guns in the air once in a while,” she explained.
“That was how they protected—the police couldn’t protect you. Coming home one day from my grandparents’ house, a bomb—we felt a bomb go off and heard an explosion, and my father put us back in the car and started to drive away, and my mother said, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to go to the police.’ And she said, ‘They probably set the bomb—what do you mean you’re going to the police?’”
She also said that despite the violence and fear in their community, her parents also told her that she could accomplish anything.
“You were always aware that you couldn’t go to a movie theater, couldn’t go to a restaurant,” she said. “I have said sometimes, very often that my parents couldn’t take me to have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, but they had me absolutely convinced that I could be president of the United States if I wanted to be.”
That spirit struck with her for years.
“All along the way there were people who advocated for me—this idea that you get there on your own—none of us got there on our own,” she said. “Somebody was there for us. And so I say to young people: look for those people.”
“And I say to those of us who are old enough to have made it: look back and find somebody to help. And the only other thing I’ll say is, we love it when our role models look like us. But if I had been waiting for a black, female Soviet specialist role model, I’d be still waiting.”
Her job as Soviet specialist was what first got her into politics and connected her with the Republican party. But it turns out her father was the first Republican in her family, after a run-in with the Jim Crow South.
My dad who loved history and politics—my mother not so much, she was a musician and really didn’t care that much. But in 1952 he went down to register to vote in Birmingham, he was a young minister, high school athletic director. And they said to him, he went down with my mother who he was dating, they weren’t yet married. And my mom—beautiful woman—and the poll tester, you’ll remember poll testers—said to her, so what do you teach? She said American history, but actually she taught English. He said, so you probably know who the first president of the United States was. She said, yes, George Washington; he said, you pass. Then my father–a big, tall, dark-skinned man, rather imposing. The poll tester said to him, pointing to a jar about this high—how many beans are in this jar?
Now when my dad couldn’t answer, of course, he failed the poll test. So, he was very despondent about this, went around his church and this elder of his, a man named Frank Hunter, said, Reverend, don’t you worry about it. I’m going to tell you how you get registered to vote, he said. We’re going to go back down there. Now there’s a clerk down there and she’s actually a Republican. And if you’ll just say you’re a Republican, she’ll register you, because she wants to get as many Republicans as she can. And so he went down and he said that he was a Republican, she registered him and he stayed true to his word. He was a Republican for the rest of his life.
UPDATED 10:30 p.m. ET