By MARSHA MERCER
Shortly after LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opening restaurants to all races, a black family -- mom, dad and their 9-year-old little girl -- in Birmingham, Ala., went to a drive-in hamburger stand for the first time.
The daughter still remembers what happened: “It was nighttime, and as I bit into my hamburger, I told my parents that something tasted funny. Daddy turned on the car light. The bun was filled with onions; nothing else, just onions.”
Condoleezza Rice, who rose to the pinnacle of American success, becoming the first African-American woman secretary of state, tells the story from her childhood in her new memoir, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family.”
Legal segregation ended with the 1964 law, she writes, adding mildly, “Decent people, not extremists but ordinary people, would start to adapt to that fact.”
Today, she says, “Race is no longer determinative of how far one can go. That said, America is not color blind and likely never will be. Race is ever present, like a birth defect that you learn to live with but can never cure.”
That’s a tough assessment, but Rice’s roots are in the segregated South in the last half of the 20th century.
As the country began to change, she was able to move ahead, fueled by parental encouragement and her own ambition and hard work. She became a Soviet specialist with a Ph.D., worked in the Reagan and Bush I White Houses and became national security adviser to George W. Bush. She served as provost of Stanford University.
She credits her success to family, especially her late parents, John and Angelena Rice, teachers and community. At home and at school, she says, expectations were high.
“`To succeed,’ they routinely reminded us, ‘you will have to be twice as good.’ This was declared as a matter of fact, not a point for debate,” she writes.
Her maternal grandparents set family standards to maintain their dignity. They refused to allow their children to use a “colored” restroom or water foundation, telling them to wait until they got home. They owned a car to keep their children from having to ride in the back of the bus.
An only child, she began piano lessons at age 3. Soon came ballet, gymnastics and baton twirling lessons. She went to a French tutor on Saturdays. She had private typing lessons, in case she needed to know how. She took ice skating lessons.
Her parents were middle-class – her mother was a teacher and her father a guidance counselor and Presbyterian minister. John Rice became a Republican when only the Republican registrar would register to vote. He refused to join the Rev. Martin Luther King in civil rights marches, saying he did not believe in non-violence when attacked and feared he’d leave his daughter an orphan. He became friends with Stokely Carmichael and other black radicals.
“Years later, when so much attention was paid to then-Senator Obama’s radical associations, I wondered what might have been made of the people who sat our dinner table,” says Rice, who did not mention her thoughts when Obama was criticized.
John Rice moved his family from Alabama when he became an administrator at Denver University. “Daddy (said) that racism was clearly alive and well in Denver in 1972 and that he preferred the blatant racism of Alabama, for in the South ‘at least you knew where you stood.’”
His daughter understood “because I’d experienced this implicit racism firsthand.” As a high school student in Denver, Rice scored poorly on a college aptitude test. The guidance counselor suggested that she consider junior college. The confident Rice just laughed, but she did not forget.
“I have always worried that there are many young people, particularly minorities, who might internalize negative messages like that and simply give up,” she writes.
Her memoir reminds us of a shameful era. Our country’s future is brighter because of those who fought —and fight -- racism. Fortunately, in the 21st century, young people of all races have as their role models Colin Powell, Barack Obama – and Condoleezza Rice.
Onion sandwiches are in our hateful past. The sting of racial prejudice should be gone, too.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.