Condoleezza Rice

(1954 - )

Speech to National Council of Negro Women

December 8, 2001 - Washington, D.C.

Condoleezza Rice

When she was U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice was the highest ranking and most powerful African American woman in history. Rice served as national security adviser (2001-05) and then secretary of state (2005-09) for President George W. Bush. She was an exceptionally close adviser to the president. One of her biographers described Bush and Rice as "virtual soul mates."1 Rice was also a star of the Republican Party and was mentioned as a possible candidate for the presidency in 2008. Rice chose to return to Stanford University as a professor in the political science department and to join the Hoover Institution as a senior fellow.

Condoleezza Rice was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father was a Presbyterian minister and school guidance counselor, her mother a schoolteacher. Birmingham was regarded as the South's "most segregated city."2 In 1963, when Rice was 9, Martin Luther King Jr. teamed up with local ministers and civil rights activists to launch a major assault on Jim Crow discrimination in Birmingham. He organized marches by African American school children as well as adults. White resistance was fierce. Blacks had nicknamed the city "Bombingham" because of its long history of violent, white vigilantism.3 The head of the Birmingham police, Eugene "Bull" Connor, set police dogs and fire hoses on the peaceful marchers – including children. Pictures and television footage of the violence caused outrage around the world.

Rice's father and his church stayed largely out of the fray. He objected to King's use of children in the demonstrations. One of Rice's schoolmates was among the four black girls killed in the infamous 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church, but Rice lived in a middle-class black enclave where her family kept their distance from the civil rights movement. "Rather than agitating for the overthrow of the system," journalist and Rice biographer Marcus Mabry writes, "middle and upper-class [black] leaders continued the tradition of carving out what freedom they could under segregation."4 When whites threatened their neighborhood, Rice's father would stand watch with his shotgun. Otherwise, he focused on ways to make life better for his family and community.

Over the years, Rice would give varying accounts of how keenly she felt the sting of white racism as a little girl in Birmingham. Journalist and biographer Elizabeth Bumiller says Rice's assessment of the civil rights movement reflects the self-help philosophy of her parents. "What I always disliked was the notion that blacks were somehow saved by people who came down from the North to march," Rice told Bumiller. "Black Americans in Birmingham and in Atlanta and places like that were thriving and educating their children and being self-reliant and producing the right values in those families, and in those communities. And when segregation did lift they were more than prepared because of what blacks had done on their own."5

When Rice was 11, the family moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama where her father became a college administrator. Two years later, they moved to Colorado so her father could assume the post of vice chancellor at the University of Denver. There, Rice attended her first integrated school.

John and Angelina Rice raised their only daughter to be a high achiever. She did so well in school that she skipped the first and seventh grades. She also took lessons in piano, violin, ballet, French and figure skating. Rice's mother gave her the unusual name Condoleezza, a variation on the Italian musical term con dolcezza, meaning "with sweetness." She graduated from high school at age 15 and entered the University of Denver to train as a concert pianist.

Although she was a talented musician, Rice realized she could not make it a profession. She was drawn to international relations in an introductory course taught by Professor Josef Korbel, a specialist on the Soviet Union and, coincidentally, the father of future Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Rice earned her Ph.D. from the University of Denver in 1981 and won a fellowship at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Arms Control. A year later she was on the Stanford faculty. In quick succession, Rice served as a Soviet expert on the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush, then returned to Stanford as provost – the University's second in command. She was 38 years old.

As provost, Rice was effective and controversial. In a New Yorker magazine profile of Rice, journalist Nicholas Lemann observes that Rice's appointment to such a powerful position at such a distinguished school was regarded as a milestone for women and minorities. And while Rice was thought by some "to be the classic beneficiary of affirmative action," Lemann writes that she did not show evidence of concern over gender or race issues as she cut millions of dollars from Stanford's overdrawn budget. Lemann adds, "Rice, rather than agonize over her role as Stanford's bad cop, gave the appearance of being completely untroubled by it." Rice was there to do a job, not redress social ills.6

Rice's position on affirmative action has been described as "centrist" or "lukewarm," though she has freely acknowledged benefitting from race and gender preferences in her own academic career.7 In 2003, Rice distanced herself from the Bush administration's support of a lawsuit against the University of Michigan that challenged the use of race as a factor in admissions. "I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body," Rice said in a statement.8 In a 1998 faculty meeting at Stanford, when Rice was provost, she said, "I myself am a beneficiary of a Stanford strategy that took affirmative action seriously."9 But Rice did not believe in considering race, ethnicity or gender in making faculty tenure decisions, a position that produced bitter controversy in her time as provost.

In the summer of 1999, Rice took a leave of absence from Stanford to become foreign policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Texas Governor George W. Bush. After he won, Bush appointed Rice as his national security adviser. She was the first woman ever to fill that post. Shortly before she left California for Washington, Rice's father died. Her mother had passed away in 1985. "Rice was keenly aware that she was experiencing one of the most important events of her life without the two most important people in her life," writes biographer Elisabeth Bumiller, "but she was comforted by her belief that somehow her parents knew."10 Once in Washington, Rice devoted herself to her job and her president with a singularity of focus that was exceptional even by the workaholic standards of the nation's capitol. Rice became close with George and Laura Bush, spending off-hours with the president watching football games or exercising. She also shared Bush's devout Christianity.

By virtue of her position and her relationship with Bush, Rice played a key role in shaping the U.S. response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, especially the decision to invade Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to be there. When Secretary of State Colin Powell retired at the beginning of Bush's second term, Rice got the post in January 2005.

As secretary of state, Rice was twice ranked by Forbes magazine as the most powerful woman in the world. Glamour magazine honored her in 2008 for her ability to mix style and power on behalf of women. "Here's how we're used to seeing Condoleezza Rice," Glamour declared, "Clicking down a cool marble hallway in her Ferragamo heels and tailored suit, the only female in a phalanx of men." The magazine celebrated Rice as "the warrior princess" who helped direct hundreds of million of dollars in government money to programs for women's health and political development and to a campaign against sex trafficking.11

Rice gave this speech in 2001 as she accepted the Mary McLeod Bethune Award from the National Council of Negro Women. The NCNW is an advocacy and development organization founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune, a legendary black educator and civil rights leader. Although she was speaking to a room filled with other African American women, Rice's comments are characteristically muted on the issue of discrimination. When bias got in her way, Rice's lifetime response was to overpower her foes "by sheer force of her excellence."12 Rice has been described as "an unabashed believer in the American experiment, in the United States as a model for good in the world."13 Rice is a passionate advocate of education as a primary solution to inequality in America. Given how much her family believed and invested in her education, Rice says in this speech, she should have accomplished much.

Listen to the speech

I could not be more honored than to receive the Bethune Award because I feel a great kinship with Mary McLeod Bethune and I think we all do. I was reading a little bit of her biography in recent days and it's extraordinary. It's extraordinary to think that at the time that Dr. Bethune lived, she was asked by a president of the United States to go to Liberia, in 1952, on a diplomatic mission. It's extraordinary that she was invited to the White House in 1928. It's extraordinary that a young, black woman from South Carolina could found a college and be its president for almost four decades. It's extraordinary, not because she wasn't talented enough to do it, but because she lived and toiled at a time when to do that as an African-American woman was extraordinary. [applause]

I also feel a kinship with her because I've learned that she collected miniature elephants. She must have been a Republican. [laughter]

I also feel, of course, a great, great kinship with this wonderful organization. It's been a part of our lives and a part of our histories from the time that any of us could remember. It is an organization that stands for the best in America because it stands for opportunity, and it stands for hope, and it stands for belief. It stands for everything that it really means to be American. It also stands for the tremendous gains that we as African-Americans, and African-American women, have made in these many years. But those gains would not have been possible without organizations like this in our lives. And so let me ask you to join me in thanking you, this great organization, for the long years of service to African-Americans, and African-American women in particular. Thank you. [applause]

I also feel a great kinship to Dr. Bethune and to this organization because we share a passion for education. There is no more important element for the United States of America than the promise of education. I'm a living example of what education can mean, because it goes back a long way in my family. I very often tell people that I should have been able to accomplish what I accomplished because I had grandparents and parents who understood the value of education.

Maybe some of you've heard me tell the story of Granddaddy Rice, a poor sharecropper's son in Ewtah – that's E-W-T-A-H - Alabama, who, somehow, in about 1919 decided he was going to get book learning. And so he asked people who came through how a colored man could get to college. And they said to him, "Well you see there's this college not too far away from here called Stillman College, and if you could get there, they take colored men into college." And so he saved up his cotton and he went off to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to go to college. He made it through his first year having paid for it with his cotton, but the second year he didn't have any more cotton, and they came and they asked him for tuition. And he said, "Well you see the problem is, I don't have any money." And they said, "Well, you'll have to leave." So he thought rather quickly and he said, "Well how are those boys going to college?" And they said, "Well, you see, they have what's called a scholarship and if you wanted to be a Presbyterian minister then you could have a scholarship too." And Granddaddy Rice said, "You know, that's exactly what I had in mind. [laughter] And my family has been Presbyterian and it has been college-educated ever since. [laughter]

My grandfather understood something, and so did my grandmother and my mother's parents, and that is that higher education, if you can attain it, is transforming. You may come from a poor family, you may come from a rural family, you may be first-generation college-educated, but once you are college-educated, the most important thing about you, in many ways, is that you're a college graduate and you are transformed. And I have to tell you that if I have a concern at all today in America, it is that we have got to find a way to pass on that promise to children, no matter what their circumstances, because it's just got to be the case in America that it does not matter where you came from, it only matters where you're going. [applause]

I used to love to stand in front of a class at Stanford University, because at Stanford University, one of the finest universities in America, there was always some kid who, of course, was a fourth-generation Stanford legatee. But you know what? He or she was sitting right next to a kid who was an itinerant farm worker's son, or a daughter of a migrant, or maybe a kid from the inner city. Because, somehow, these kids were getting a good enough education to come and study side-by-side at Stanford University and be transformed together. But we have a hard job ahead of us if that promise is going to continue to be fulfilled. We've got an educational system that is, frankly, not living up to the demands of today to educate our children.

I know that this conference talks about leaving no one behind. President Bush has talked about leaving no child behind. America has got to recommit to precisely that sentiment because we will not be who we are if it is not true that you are able to do whatever your talents can allow you to do – that you are not somehow constrained and hemmed in by where you started.

Now, there's another message that we need to deliver to our kids. It's that educational excellence is key, but so are limitless educational horizons.

You know, I didn't start out to be a Russian specialist. I'm not Russian, in case you haven't noticed. [laughter] And so I went to college to be a concert pianist. I could read music before I could read. But, about my sophomore year in college, I started to encounter those kids who could play from sight everything that it had taken me all year to learn. And I thought, I'm in trouble. I'm not going to end up playing at Carnegie Hall, I'm going to end up playing in a piano bar, or teaching 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven, or maybe playing at Nordstrom, but I'm not going to play Carnegie Hall. And so I went home and had that conversation with my parents:

"Mom and Dad, I'm changing my major."

"To what are you changing your major?"

"I don't know."

"You are going to wind up a waitress at Howard Johnson's because you don't know what you want to do with your life."

"Well after all it is my life."

"Well after all it is our money." [laughter]

And after this little conversation my parents and I decided that I only had two years to finish college. I was already now a junior in college. And so I wandered the wilderness looking for a major. And, fortunately, in the spring quarter of my junior year, I wandered into a course in international politics taught by a Soviet specialist – taught by a man named Joseph Korbel, Madeleine Albright's father. And suddenly, I'd found love. People say, "Why are you interested in Russia?" It's like love. I'd suddenly found my passion. And it never occurred to me to ask why a black woman from Birmingham, Alabama might want to do that.

And, so, I studied Russia. And I studied Russian. And I became proficient at what I did and I went off to teach. And President Bush, the first, asked me to come and be his specialist for Soviet affairs. And, in June 1990, I found myself in a helicopter taking off with Mikhail Gorbachev, Raisa Gorbachyova, me and the Secret Service, and I thought to myself, "I'm really glad I changed my major." [laughter]

For me, the passion came in something quite unusual. We have to tell our kids, too, that it's okay for your passion to come in something that's not expected of you. If you can be excellent at something, if you love something, go and do it. And then provide them the education to do so. That, in many ways, is our most important value as Americans, but you know what? It's actually a universal value.

We're seeing it today in Afghanistan, where women are throwing off their burqas. But that's not really what they're talking about. They're talking about re-entering colleges, and going back to work as doctors, and educating their daughters for the first time since the Taliban came to power. That's the power of this value – that people ought to be able to attain whatever they can attain.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it was the way that Mary McLeod Bethune believed, it has been the way that this great organization has believed, it is what we, as Americans, believe.

I want to thank you for the honor of being with you, of now carrying an award that carries the name of one of the great pioneers of our people, and of our country. I want to thank you again, Dr. Height, for being here with me. May God bless you and God bless America. [applause]

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