When I sat down to watch "60 Minutes" Sunday night, I knew that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be appearing. I expected the same old run-of-the-mill defense of the Bush administration and, in that respect, she was predictably predictable.
But when the discussion turned to her upbringing in my native state of Alabama, it was clear that this smart, able and doctrinaire bureaucrat was basically pimping the civil rights movement.
She talked in moving terms about the four girls killed in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. One of them, Denise McNair, "was my little friend from kindergarten" and another, Addie Mae Collins, "was in my uncle's homeroom in school."
Referring to her childhood, Rice said: "Nobody lived in an integrated fashion. Since you couldn't go to a restaurant until 1964, or stay in a hotel, or go to a movie theatre unless you wanted to sit in the rafters … in the Black-only section … . And my parents were determined to try and shield me from some of those humiliations."
Rice was 8 years old when that bomb exploded in Birmingham; I was 16 years old at the time. Perhaps because of our age difference, I knew then and I know now, there was no way any parent could shield their children from the indignities of segregation. My mother couldn't shield me from the fact that after working all day as a domestic, she was forced to ride home in the back seat of her employer's car.
My stepfather couldn't shield me from knowing that if I rode the city bus to town, I would have to sit in the back — which is why I always walked if I couldn't catch a ride with a relative or friend. My parents couldn't shield me from racist ministers appearing on television, saying that if God had wanted us to be equal, He would have made us the same color.
By all accounts, Rice was a blue-blood Black. Her father, John Rice, was a Presbyterian minister and guidance counselor. Her mother, Angelena, was a science and music teacher. And what did they do to eradicate those oppressive conditions that African Americans were forced to endure?
"My father was not a march-in-the-street preacher," Rice told an interviewer for the Washington Post. The decision to use children in protest demonstrations is one of the main reasons the walls of segregation came tumbling down in my home state. But the Rev. Rice would have no part of it.
"He saw no reason to put children at risk," she told the Post. "He would never put his own children at risk."
And that's the point. Many Black middle-class families refused to confront America's version of apartheid, yet when the doors of opportunity flung open, they were the first to march through them, riding on the back of poor people who were unafraid to take risks.
Many of us, as teenagers, were willing to take risks that many adults wouldn't. I was in the 10th grade when Joe Page, a fellow student at Druid High School, drove us to Birmingham to protest the deaths of those four girls. We were supposed to be in school, but going to Birmingham was the best education I could have received at the time.
Another childhood friend, Ronnie Linebarger, and I were in the middle of most street demonstrations in Tuscaloosa and we know the smell of tear gas. Another schoolmate, Jean Corder, and her entire family were active in the movement. We found a way in 1965, my senior year in high school, to participate in the last leg of the Selma-Montgomery March.
As teens, we took risks and in most instances, our parents would have preferred that we take the safe way out. Our parents didn't want us harmed. They didn't want us beaten or tear-gassed. They loved us as much as Condoleezza Rice's parents loved her. But our parents also knew that the system was wrong. And while they worried about our safety, they allowed us to fight for our rights.
So, watching Rice talk passionately on "60 Minutes" about the civil rights movement when her family sat on the sidelines, stirred a lot of emotions. She can talk passionately about the horrors of that era yet seemingly feel no shame that her parents chose to play it safe.
Perhaps that's why Rice feels so comfortable defending George W. Bush, arguably the worst president on civil rights in more than 50 years. Unlike her parents, she is not on the sidelines — she's on the wrong team.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.