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Condoleezza Rice sat down with Bham Now for a q&a on her stop in Birmingham today. The former U.S. Secretary of State was back in her hometown of Birmingham, signing copies of her new 486-page book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, at the Brookwood Village location of Books-A-Million.
A line of people had already formed outside the entrance to Books-A-Million when the doors opened at 10 a.m. Inside, a long line zig-zagged through the store’s aisles as Dr. Rice began began signing copies at 10:30. Store officials said they sold approximately 200 copies of Dr. Rice’s book during Monday morning’s signing event.
Among those in attendance were Jeanette Robinson and her son, Andrew Malone, who gave her the book as a Mother’s Day present. Others came from out of town for the opportunity to meet Dr. Rice, including Dr. Theodore Sabir, a professor at Faulkner University who made the 90-mile drive to Birmingham along with his family.
Dr. Rice grew up in the Titusville neighborhood of Birmingham in the 1950s and ‘60s, the same period of time when the Civil Rights movement was gripping the city. She lost a childhood classmate, Denise McNair, one of the four little girls who lost their lives in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.
Yet Dr. Rice emerged from this era of segregation to become the first female African-American U.S. Secretary of State and the first woman to serve as national security advisor, under President George W. Bush. She currently is the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and a professor of political science.
Dr. Rice was generous enough to give a few minutes of her time to talk with Bham Now about her book, her experiences with Birmingham’s past, and the transformation she has seen in the Magic City over the years.
Bham Now: What is your new book about?
Dr. Rice: This is a broad book on democracy. I’ve always been somebody who just thinks it’s amazing that we have this thing called democracy, where people are willing to take their differences and their desires and their fears to these institutions – the Constitution, the rule of law, the courts – rather than going immediately into the streets. Democracy is really the way we protect the rights that we all enjoy. The right to say what we think, worship as we please, be free from the secret police at night. And then that most amazing thing, that you can choose those who are going to govern you.
I wanted to show that democracy is not just an American idea. That we have gone through a long period in the United States of getting to a better democracy. Not a perfect democracy, but a better democracy. I describe the process that I saw in a lot of countries that I was involved with in one way or another as Secretary of State. And I try to remind Americans that as long as there are men and women who live in tyranny, we need to be a voice for them.
Bham Now: The 16th Street Baptist Church and surrounding area recently was designated as an official U.S. national monument. What does that mean from both an historic standpoint, and also for you from a personal standpoint?
Dr. Rice: From an historical standpoint it’s absolutely the right thing to do, because in many ways the bombing of that church reminded people of how brutal segregation was and how much hatred there was. And it memorializes these wonderful four little girls, one of whom was my kindergarten classmate, Denise McNair. So from a personal point of view, I’m really glad that their names and that horrific incident will always be imprinted on America and American history. It was in many ways a turning point, and we went on to become a better city and a better state and a better country because of that horrible sacrifice.
Bham Now: Obviously there is still work to be done, but how dramatic has the change been in Civil Rights in your lifetime?
Dr. Rice: It’s amazing to see where we are. I grew up in Birmingham at a time when you couldn’t go to a movie theater or a restaurant. My dad had trouble voting in 1952. But my parents always believed that American institutions were going to turn around, that this was not permanent. They never missed a chance to vote. Even if that vote didn’t matter right then, they knew it was eventually going to matter.
So, yes, we’ve come a very long way, but we and the country still have a long way to go. When I think about what people are challenged to do around the world, I always tell them not to look at America as being perfect, because that would be wrong. Look at America as also being a work in progress in democracy, which ought to be good news for those of you who are just getting started.
Bham Now: I know you don’t live here anymore, but have you kept up with the progress Birmingham has made in recent years?
Dr. Rice: Birmingham is really on the move, and it’s a great to see. Birmingham has always had great physical beauty. When I bring people here for the first time they say, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so beautiful.’ It’s green with rolling hills. But over the last several years it’s also become really quite cosmopolitan. Because people have come here from around the country and around the world. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has been a tremendous magnet, particularly in the medical technology side, to people from all over the world. It has great restaurants and great golf courses, which I enjoy when I come here. But it’s also kept a lovely feel for families, just nice places for families to be.
I know Birmingham still has its challenges. One of the things that I’ve been able to be involved in here is the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club. We’ve built a Center for a New Generation, which is an after-school and summer program for kids who don’t have the means to have that good experience. So I enjoy being in Birmingham. I have a lot of good friends here. But a lot of other people are finding out about Birmingham. You better watch out. There’s going to be a population explosion in Birmingham.
Bham Now: So how can Birmingham attract you back to live here?
Dr. Rice: (laughs) I’m fortunate. I get to teach at Stanford and live in California, but I get to come to Birmingham often. So that’s the best thing.