Condoleezza Rice recalls racial blast that killed childhood friend

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama Sat Sep 14, 2013 7:13am EDT

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - When a church bombing killed four young black girls on a quiet Sunday morning in 1963, life for a young Condoleezza Rice changed forever.

The racial attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church, in the former secretary of state's hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, rocked the nation and led to sweeping changes in laws governing civil rights.

But for Rice, just 8 years old at the time, the tragedy meant the death of a little girl she used to play dolls with, and the loss of her own youthful sense of security.

"As an 8-year-old, you don't think about terror of this kind," said Rice, who recounted on Friday her memory of the bombing and its aftermath in remarks to a gathering of civic leaders in Birmingham as part of several days of events leading up to the 50th anniversary of the bombing on September 15.

Rice's hometown had become a place too dangerous for black children to leave their own neighborhoods, or go downtown and visit Santa Claus, or go out of the house after dark.

"There was no sanctuary. There was no place really safe," she said.

Rice's friend, 11-year-old Denise McNair, died in the blast along with 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley. Their deaths at the hands of Ku Klux Klan members garnered national support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Events for the 50th anniversary of the bombing will include a screening of filmmaker Spike Lee's new documentary, "Four Little Girls," and a memorial service on Sunday scheduled to include U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Rice has a treasured photo of her friend accepting a kindergarten certificate from Rice's father, who was a pastor at another church. McNair had gone to preschool there. McNair's father was the community photographer, documenting birthday parties and weddings in happier times.

"Everyone in the black community knew one of those girls," Rice said.

Her father told her the bombing had been done by "hateful men," she said, but it was an act that later uncovered something ultimately good.

"Out of great tragedy, people began to recognize our humanity, and it brought people together," said Rice.

The bombing left its mark on her even as an adult, when as U.S. Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, she used the experience to understand the plight of Palestinian and Israeli victims of bombs and attacks during peace negotiations.

"I told them I know what it is like for a Palestinian mother, who has to tell her child they can't go somewhere," Rice said, "and how it is for an Israeli mother, who puts her child to bed and wonders if the child will be alive in the morning."

But with all of the progress made in civil rights during the 50 years since the blast, Rice cites education as the biggest impediment to equality in modern times.

She expressed dismay at racial disparities in the quality of education for minorities and criticized the "soft bigotry of low expectations" in a system she said challenges black students less than others.

"Even racism can't be an excuse for not educating our kids," she said. "If a kid cannot read, that kid is done. A child in a bad school doesn't have time for racism to be eradicated. They have to learn today."

(This story is corrected with spelling of Condoleezza in headline and first paragraph)

(Edited by Karen Brooks and Eric Walsh)

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Comments (3)
morbas wrote:
With respect, why dear Condoleezza are you not exposing the previous Bush Administration outright fabrication of lies that moved us to an evil unjustifiable slaughter of a Million Civilians in Iraq; and exposing CIA operative(s) at a time of War.
-Claiming servitude to justice requires the whole truth.-

Sep 14, 2013 8:20am EDT  --  Report as abuse
kdk729 wrote:
You’ve got to be kidding me, “soft bigotry of low expectations”? And just what has this demographic asked for over the last 5 decades? Equal footing? Absolutely NOT!

Every time you turn around this demographic is whining about how unfair everything is, and now, they complain about the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Please… If you want to be on equal footing you are expected to apply yourself equally as well.

First you whine because things are unfair, then you whine because the bar hasn’t been raised. What do you want?

Sep 14, 2013 5:19pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
barbarajordan wrote:
Condoleezza, will realize at some point in her life (I hope) that she is on the wrong side of history. To have your childhood friend murdered and for you to join that side to support makes me dislike her even more. I don’t why the media is even talking to her. Why Al Sharpton interviewed her last week is beyond belief. Condi is not as stupid as Sarah Palin, but I put them in the boat.

Sep 14, 2013 5:48pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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