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Americans came to know Condoleezza Rice as a key player in President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The former secretary of state, in fact, was nicknamed the Warrior Princess for her hawkish views.

Now, Condoleezza Rice is out with a memoir on her life before she joined the Bush administration. It's a deeply personal account of growing up in the last, violent days of segregation in Birmingham, Alabama - a place she writes was then known as Bombingham. The title "Extraordinary, Ordinary People" honors, in particular, her mother, a teacher; and her father, an educator and minister.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Former Secretary of State): People very often ask me, well, how did you become who you are? And I always say, you had to know John and Angelina Rice. So this is really their story, and my life wrapped in their story.

MONTAGNE: What many people might know about you is that you are a talented and trained pianist. You played for the Queen of England, with Aretha Franklin, but your name was also because of music.

Ms. RICE: That's right. My mother - and my grandmother and great-grandmother, for that matter - were all musicians. And my mother decided that she wanted to have a musical name, a musical term. And she, in fact, thought about several. She thought about Andantino, but that kind of meant walking slowly. She didn't like the implications of that. She certainly didn't like Allegro because you didn't want your daughter to be thought of as fast.

MONTAGNE: Certainly not in the '50s.

Ms. RICE: Certainly not in the '50s, that's right. So she decided instead to look at this term con dolcezza, which meant with sweetness, and she played with the ending so that the English ear would hear it correctly. And that's how we got Condoleezza.

MONTAGNE: Both of your parents cared a lot about culture, and about learning, and about accomplishment.

Ms. RICE: Absolutely. In my family, anything that was considered an educational opportunity, they wanted me to be able to do. I would even say that my parents, and their friends in our community, thought of education as a kind of armor against racism. If you were well-educated and you spoke well, then there was only so much they could do to you.

MONTAGNE: They, meaning racist white people.

Ms. RICE: They being the white man, being racist white people. But there was no doubt that you had to be twice as good to be accepted. And it was said - really kind of as a matter of fact. Nobody debated whether that was right, wrong or indifferent.

MONTAGNE: As a child, you were also told that there would be no victims.

Ms. RICE: That's right. That was a sin. To consider yourself victimized or not able to control your destiny or your fate, that was the one cardinal sin in our community.

MONTAGNE: You described Birmingham of the 1950s, into the early 1960s, as eclipsing - and I'm quoting you, every other big American city in the ugliness of its racism - actually a dangerous place for a young, black girl and her family. Tell us about one moment that communicates what you mean by that.

Ms. RICE: Well, Birmingham was a place where when you saw the police, you assumed they were up to something that was going to be dangerous for you. And then, of course, it all exploded in 1963, with the riots and fire hoses and the police dogs and then ultimately, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September of 1963 where four little girls - just trying to go to Sunday school - were killed in the basement of that church. And if you were a child in Birmingham, you knew then that this was not a safe place.

MONTAGNE: And you knew one of those little girls, Denise McNair.

Ms. RICE: I did. She was a couple of years older than I, but we knew each other and played together. And Birmingham just wasnt that big, so everybody knew those little girls personally.

MONTAGNE: You tell a story that's very particular to you. When you were just about 6 or 7 years old, you went to see Santa Claus at Christmastime.

Ms. RICE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Tell us that story.

Ms. RICE: Well, we had a kind of tradition - Mom and Dad and I - of going down to one of the big stores at Christmastime. And they had window displays, and we would go and shop. And I would go and see Santa Claus. And I remember hearing my father, as we were standing in line, say that Santa Claus was treating the little white kids differently than little black kids. He was sitting the little white kids on his knee, and he was holding the little black kids off at a distance.

And my father said to my mother: And if he does that to Condoleezza, I'm going to pull all that stuff off him and just expose him as the cracker that he is. And you know, you're a little kid, and I sort of went forward with a lot of trepidation. I wasn't really sure who was going to go off here, Santa Claus or Daddy. My dad was a big man. He was 6'2," and built like a football player.

But Santa put me on his knee and he said: Well, little girl, what do you want for Christmas? And I told him, but I remember thinking at that moment, wow, that was pretty charged; and maybe a little bit later, pretty racially charged - and of all things, about Santa Claus.

MONTAGNE: Now, your father, and your mother as well, decided not to march in the different marches that were happening in that era, and certainly in Birmingham. And you write about that, and what their thinking was there.

Ms. RICE: Yes. Well, my parents and many of their friends didn't march with Martin Luther King. They did their part. One of the things that I wanted to get through in this book is this idea that it was all very black and white, so to speak - that you either supported what the civil rights movement was doing or you didn't - if you didn't march.

And in fact, these were people - teachers who, for instance, refused to give over the names of their students to the state authorities so that the students could go ahead and march, and not lose the right to graduate. These were people who joined the boycott of the stores. These were people who played their role. But they chose not to march, and my father was very clear about why he wouldn't. My dad was not someone who you would strike with a billy club, and he wouldn't strike back. It just wasn't in him. As he said to my mother - I overheard them; he wasn't saying it to me, I overheard them - they would have hit him, meaning the police; he would have fought back. And his daughter would have been an orphan.

MONTAGNE: You know, do you think that hearing these stories of your childhood, people listening will be surprised, those who know you only as secretary of state under George W. Bush - under the Bush administration?

Ms. RICE: I don't know. I think that what is surprising to me is the number of people who have said to me: I had no idea what segregated Alabama was really like. Everybody knows, roughly, that there were bad times in '63. But the degree of segregation and hatred, and how my parents and our community reacted to it - not being beaten down by it, not even being particularly bitter about it but rather believing, well, you might not have been able to control those circumstances, but you could control how you reacted to your circumstances - maybe that's a good story for people to know.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Condoleezza Rice, thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. RICE: Thank you. It was great to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Condoleezza Rice is now at Stanford University. You can read an excerpt from her memoir at npr.org.

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