Condoleezza Rice: Questionable Use of Birmingham Story


The Washington Post had a story about how the Israeli foreign minister felt insulted about not being recognized by foreign ministers from other Middle Eastern countries (that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel).

What caught my attention is where the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, made a comment that her experience with the Birmingham church bombing helped her to understand the feelings of the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Rice began by saying she did not want to draw historical parallels or be too self-reflective, but as a young girl she grew up in Birmingham, Ala., “at a time of separation and tension.”


She noted that a local church was bombed by white separatists, killing four girls, including a classmate of hers.”


Like the Israelis, I know what it is like to go to sleep at night, not knowing if you will be bombed, of being afraid to be in your own neighborhood, of being afraid to go to your church,” she said.


But, she added, as a black child in the South, being told she could not use certain water fountains or eat in certain restaurants, she also understood the feelings and emotions of the Palestinians.”


I know what it is like to hear to that you cannot go on a road or through a checkpoint because you are Palestinian,” she said. “I understand the feeling of humiliation and powerlessness.”


“There is pain on both sides,” Rice concluded. “This has gone on too long.”

When I read and thought about this quote, I did not feel comfortable with Secretary Rice’s statement concerning the Birmingham church bombing. Surely, what occurred with the Birmingham church bombing was horrible (understatement). But I feel that a witness to such inhumanity would have a mission to seek social justice (particularly for Blacks in the United States, given that it was a Black church that was bombed).

The problem with Secretary Rice’s statement is not that she used the imagery of the Birmingham church bombing with respect to the Palestinian struggle for a state of their own. Rather, it is the use of the horrible event in Birmingham to justify inaction. Her words did not put the parties on the road to peace nor to a final peace agreement.

As a result, her use of Birmingham is a gratuitous abuse of history as a mere talking point. Other writers have noticed this (here, here, and here).

I did some research on Secretary Rice’s use of the Birmingham story. Throughout, I noticed that her use of Birmingham was consistently questionable. In essence, the Birmingham experience did not serve as a spur for peace, but rather bellicosity (more human suffering, ironically with bombs).

In the Telegraph (a United Kingdom newspaper):

Miss Rice rarely plays on her upbringing in Birmingham, Alabama – a hotbed of racial strife in the Sixties, culminating in the fatal bombing of a black church. However, addressing the National Association of Black Journalists in Dallas, she used that personal history to issue a direct challenge to all those critical of the Bush administration’s ambitions in Iraq and beyond.


“Like many of you, I grew up around the home-grown terrorism of the 1960s. I remember the bombing of the church in Birmingham in 1963, because one of the little girls that died was a friend of mine,” she said.


Black Americans should stand by others seeking freedom today, she went on, and shun the “condescending” argument that some races or nations were not interested in or ready for Western freedoms.


“We’ve heard that argument before. And we, more than any, as a people, should be ready to reject it,” she said. “That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham and it is wrong in 2003 in Baghdad and in the rest of the Middle East.”

Dr. Rice’s opening statement at her confirmation hearing:

Four years ago, Secretary Powell addressed this committee for the same purpose I do now. Then as now, it was the same week that America celebrates the life and legacy of Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a time to reflect on the legacy of that great man, on the sacrifices he made, on the courage of the people he led, and on the progress our nation has made in the decades since. I am especially indebted to those who fought and sacrificed in the Civil Rights movement so that I could be here today.


For me, this is a time to remember other heroes as well. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama — the old Birmingham of Bull Connor, church bombings, and voter intimidation — the Birmingham where Dr. King was thrown in jail for demonstrating without a permit. Yet there was another Birmingham, the city where my parents — John and Angelena Rice — and their friends built a thriving community in the midst of the most terrible segregation in the country. It would have been so easy for them to give in to despair, and to send that message of hopelessness to their children. But they refused to allow the limits and injustices of their time to limit our horizons. My friends and I were raised to believe that we could do or become anything — that the only limits to our aspirations came from within. We were taught not to listen to those who said to us, “No, you can’t.”


The story of Birmingham’s parents and teachers and children is a story of the triumph of universal values over adversity. And those values — a belief in democracy, and liberty, and the dignity of every life, and the rights of every individual — unite Americans of all backgrounds, all faiths, and all colors. They provide us a common cause in all times, a rallying point in difficult times, and a source of hope to men and women across the globe who cherish freedom and work to advance freedom’s cause. And in these extraordinary times, it is the duty of all of us — legislators, diplomats, civil servants, and citizens — to uphold and advance the values that are the core of the American identity, and that have lifted the lives of millions around the world.


One of history’s clearest lessons is that America is safer, and the world is more secure, whenever and wherever freedom prevails. It is neither an accident nor a coincidence that the greatest threats of the last century emerged from totalitarian movements. Fascism and Communism differed in many ways, but they shared an implacable hatred of freedom, a fanatical assurance that their way was the only way, and a supreme confidence that history was on their side.

This use of the terrible tragedy of discrimination against Blacks is deplorable. Readers should be aware of Secretary Rice’s tactic.


3 thoughts on “Condoleezza Rice: Questionable Use of Birmingham Story

  1. I don’t get your point. You have not stated clearly your reason for your opinion.

    For example, are you criticizing her weakness against oppression and tyranny (all talk no serious action) or her valid use of Birmingham as an example of tyranny?

    Without clarity you’ve wasted ink.


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