Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was 12 when her family left Birmingham. Decades later, she hit an impressive list of political milestones. She became the first African-American woman to serve as national security advisor and later the first African-American female U.S. Secretary of State under former President George W. Bush. She’s just come out with a new book — Democracy: Stories from the Road to Freedom. While she was in Birmingham Monday, she told WBHM’s Sherrel Wheeler Stewart how memories of a segregated Alabama during her childhood have stuck with her and laid the foundation for her latest work.
What it’s like to be back home
Well, it’s always great to be back in Birmingham. My relatives live here, and it’s kind of nice to see people and remember what it was like to see Vulcan. I was a little girl waiting to see whether his torch would be red or green. So it’s always nice to go back to Birmingham. We actually left Birmingham when I was 12. So it’s been a long, long journey but it’s fun to come back.
The role her early experiences during the Civil Rights era in Birmingham play in her book
Well, that’s really right at the heart of it, because I grew up in Birmingham at a time when there were really so many impediments to black citizens participating in full democracy. Not only could you not go to a movie theater or a restaurant — that was one thing — but my father had trouble registering to vote in 1952. I remember him telling me that story, and yet my relatives and people in my community had faith in these American institutions. So I always say that the seeds for this book on democracy were sort of laid then.
Has Alabama come far enough?
We’ve come an awful long way. Look, our country had a birth defect at its founding. We had slavery as a birth defect. Like any birth defect, you can overcome, it continues to be there, an ever-present element. And so, we’re not a colorblind society, and I don’t think we’re probably ever going to be colorblind, at least not in my lifetime. But when you look at what we’ve achieved, you have to be impressed. As a matter of fact, my classmate William Bell is the mayor of Birmingham. We were in school together at Brunetta C Hill Elementary School. That would have been unthinkable in the ’60s. So yes, we’ve made progress. We still have a lot to do in making each other trustful of one another. That is our greatest challenge.
On the immigration debate
Well, I worry a lot about the immigration debate. We are a country of immigrants. My ancestors came as slaves, not as immigrants, but most ancestors came as immigrants. And that’s what has made us a strong country — that we’ve drawn the most active and the most engaged and most risk-taking people from all over the world for generations and they’ve come here to make us better. And some of them come from the wealthiest countries in the world to lead the knowledge-based revolution. For instance, one of the founders of Google, Sergey Brin, his parents brought him to America at 7 years old from Russia. He never would have found Google in Russia, so immigrants have enriched us. I believe in obeying all laws. I believe in secure borders, but I don’t want us to be a country that is not compassionate.
The role of social media in a democracy
Well, social media is both a blessing for democracy in that people can mobilize and gather without – and particularly if you’re in an authoritarian society — you don’t have to get out and pass out flyers. You can just do it on social media. But it also has some downsides. You know democracy works rather slowly. You need time to confer with people to deliberate. And now everything is on social media. Immediately people are reacting before they even think.
A return to Birmingham?
Well, I’m fortunate. I teach at Stanford. I love that, and I don’t really imagine myself leaving. But it doesn’t mean I can’t be involved in Birmingham. Years ago, more than 20 or 25 years ago, some friends and I started a program called the Center for a New Generation, which is now a program of the Boys and Girls Clubs in California. It’s an afterschool and summer academy for some of the most economically challenged kids. We now have started a Center for a New Generation here in Birmingham as part of the Gaston Boys and Girls Club complex. We work very very closely with Frank (Adams) and his team. And so I don’t think I’m breaking any news here, but I’m going to co-chair a campaign for the Boys and Girls Clubs because I believe in Birmingham. I believe in what it’s achieved. It is hardly like the place that my parents and I left in the middle ’60s. It’s got people from all over now all over the world. The University of Alabama-Birmingham is one of the best medical centers in the world. You can go to some of the finest restaurants here in Birmingham. So, this city is attracting great minds, great technology, and has great companies. And so as much as I will live in California and be a part of Stanford, I enjoy being a part of Birmingham.