Acorns to Oaks: Condoleezza Rice's Journey from the Jim Crow South to the White House

Article excerpt

Arthur Herstein is managing editor of the American Clergy Magazine.

Condoleezza Rice has experienced a wide range of life in America. In her formative years, she experienced life under the Jim Crow system in the South. She excelled in school, established herself in the academic community, and was chosen by President George W. Bush as his trusted national security adviser. In this capacity, Rice must keep the chief executive informed about national security and the political situation around the globe. She comes to the job well qualified by her intelligence, education, career experience, character, and religious faith.

Rice is descended from slaves on both sides of her family. Her maternal great-grandfather was a white plantation owner who had children with his black house slave. Her paternal great-grandmother, Julia Head Rice, was a slave on a plantation in Greene County, Alabama. A house slave who had the opportunity to learn to read and write, she married John Wesley Rice, a former slave from South Carolina who was also literate. That desire for education would become a family theme. Julia and John had nine children and attended the Methodist church.

Rice's grandfather, John Jr., inherited the quest for learning and left the family farm to go to college. He saved his cotton money and attended Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At the time, scholarships were available at Stillman for those who agreed to become Presbyterian ministers. John took advantage of the opportunity. He became a pastor, and was committed to helping black youth get a college education. Under his pastorship, a small congregation in Birmingham eventually developed into Westminster Presbyterian Church, the Rice family church.

Rice's parents instilled in her a love for excellence and achievement, in learning as well as in character. They believed that only through such self-imposed discipline would it be possible to rise out of the oppression of the segregated South. "My parents were very strategic," she said. "I was going to be so well prepared, and I was going to do all of those 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."

An only child, Rice was home-schooled for her first year, took ballet lessons, and started studying piano at age 3. Her mother Angelena was a teacher and an accomplished musician. Music was so important to Angelena that she chose her daughter's name from an Italian musical term, con dolcezza ("with sweetness") which she formed into "Condoleezza." Music became a central theme in Rice's life. She was headed for a career as a concert pianist, until her direction changed during college.

Rice was born in Birmingham on November 14, 1954. During the 1950s and early '60s, life for Birmingham's black citizens had many negative aspects. Segregation, bigotry, and discrimination were daily fare. Many black families formed close bonds with one another. A growing number of middle-class families, like the Rices, moved to the suburbs and set high standards for their children, but they could never completely eliminate the degrading system known as Jim Crow. (The term comes from a character in a minstrel show.) It was a system of law and unwritten code that considered black people intrinsically inferior to whites. Not only were facilities segregated, but many social norms were designed to humiliate. For example, a black man could not offer to shake hands with a white man. And if he presented his hand to a white woman, he could be accused of rape. The list of taboos for blacks was extensive.

Birmingham was also dangerous. Because of the severe bigotry, violence against blacks, even bombings, took place frequently enough to keep the black population worried.

In 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed on a busy Sunday morning, and the blast could be felt for miles. …