Rice honors victims of 1963 bombing

Secretary of state visits Ala. church where four girls, including a friend of hers, were killed


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Forty-two years after the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls and inflamed the civil rights movement, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helped honor them by recalling one of the victims as a friend with whom she grew up, played dolls and sang in musicals.

On the second day of a trip to highlight the civil rights era as an example to countries struggling to achieve democracy, Rice and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where the bombings occurred and watched as plaques honoring the girls were unveiled.

The plaques will be installed later at City Hall.

"As God would have it, they were at Sunday School when America experienced homegrown terrorists of the worst sort," Rice said in an emotional ceremony at a park across the street from the church, which was bombed in 1963.

In her speech, she sought to connect her childhood in the segregated South to her work as the first African-American woman to be the nation's top diplomat.

"It was meant to shatter our spirit," she said of the bombing. "It was meant to say that we shouldn't rise up. Just a few weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King said, `I have a dream,' it was meant to tell us that, no, we didn't have a dream, and that dream was going to be denied."

For listeners, particularly Straw and visiting Britons, the ceremony was a dramatic reminder of how much had changed since the city of Rice's birth was known as "Bombingham," at a time when it was inconceivable that someone from her tight-knit, middle-class, churchgoing community could rise to such prominence.

But there was also time for play after the sober morning as Rice, Straw and their staffs sped off for the big football game between undefeated Alabama and Tennessee at Tuscaloosa, where the two diplomats planned to do the opening coin toss.

Since becoming national security adviser and then secretary of state in the Bush administration, Rice has not made a public display of her personal story as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and church organist who grew up during the civil rights era.

But, in recent months, that reticence has lifted as Rice has pressed the Bush administration's campaign for democracy and reform in the Middle East as a pillar of its foreign policy, and it has become useful to make an analogy between what Rice calls the American "birth defect," its record of racism, and the problems faced by other countries.

Her seeming reluctance to dwell on her history was cast aside for this trip, as much of Alabama welcomed her home as a kind of daughter of history.

Straw recalled his own teenage memories of the church bombing and said it was something noted the world over.

Rice took Straw on a tour of the church, where a crack can still be seen in the foundation, and of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where the first sight upon entry is a pair of water fountains labeled "white" and "colored," and where there is a bombed-out bus.

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