Secretary Rice: The Essence of the American Experience

Remarks of Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice at
State Department African American History Month Celebration
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
February 18, 2005

[Editorial comment: For the occasion, Secretary Rice spoke appropriately on the African-American experience, however as she herself noted in the speech the uniqueness of the African-American experience isn't in it's Africanism but in it's Americanism, in the appeal to America's ideals.]

(4:00 p.m. EST)

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much. Boy, whenever I’m introduced, I want Ambassador Davis to introduce me. (Laughter.) She’s fantastic.

I’d like to welcome you here to the Department of State’s Celebration of African American History Month. I want to welcome especially the Members of the African Diplomatic Corps, the Members of Congress who are here, Educational and Cultural Exchange Program participants, the students from Miner Elementary School (applause), members of the various African American associations that are here, Department of State employees — in particular, Blacks in Government and the Thursday Luncheon Group. I know, too, that the members of the African American Ambassadors are here, and other distinguished guests, especially my distinguished platform partners here, Ambassador Davis, Dr. LaFayette, Dr. Dorothy Height, one of my real heroines, and Coach Romeo Crennel, who is going to bring my Cleveland Browns back. (Laughter.) Secretary Rice and Cleveland Browns Coach Romeo Crennel. Washington, DC, Feb. 18, 2005. State Dept photo.

I want to thank the Morgan State University Choir. What a fantastic, fantastic performance. (Applause.)

I just want to reflect for a few minutes on the African American experience in America and the essence of that experience. And each and every one of us, of course, experiences being African American in some different way. But when I talk to African Americans around the country, from all walks of life, from all kinds of backgrounds, a few things seem to unite us in our experiences: What has made this African American community prosper and thrive despite the tremendous, tremendous obstacles since Africans first landed here in America.

I would say it’s a story of faith. It’s a story of faith that was very powerfully brought forth in the song that was just performed by Morgan State. It’s a story of family, the importance of family ties that hold us together. And you know, it’s not just your mom and your dad and grandmother and your grandfather, it’s your aunts and your uncles and your cousins and your cousins’ cousins and your aunt and uncles’ cousins’ cousins. (Laughter.) You know that when we talk about family, we mean extended family in the African American experience.

And, of course, it’s valuing education. And indeed, I’m so pleased that Morgan State is here and that the elementary school is here because that shows how African Americans have prospered and survived. It’s because we’ve cared about the education of our children that this has mattered.

Now, my experience is an experience of faith and family and education, all brought together in one story that I’d like to tell you. I was born to parents who were college-educated. My parents were teachers. My father was a guidance counselor; eventually, he was the university administrator at the University of Denver. But he got there, and my mother got there, because they had parents who cared about education. And the first one in my family to really care about education was my paternal grandfather. And I want to tell you how faith and family and education came together in Granddaddy Rice.

Granddaddy Rice was a poor, sharecropper’s son in Ewtah — that’s E-w-t-a-h — Alabama. (Laughter.) And one day he decided that he wanted to get book learning. Nobody quite understands why Granddaddy Rice figured he wanted to get book learning, but he did. So he asked people who were coming through, in the parlance of the day, how a colored man could go to college. And they said, well, if you get some money together and you go about 60 miles down the road, there is Stillman College, a historically black college, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and they educate young colored men.

So he got his cotton together and he took off for Stillman College to go college. And after the first year, having paid for his college with cotton, they said to him, “Okay, well, how are you going to pay for a second year?” And he said, “Well, I used my cotton. I don’t have any more.” They said, “Well, you’ll have to leave.”

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 you could have a scholarship, too.” (Laughter.) And my grandfather said, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” (Laughter and applause.) And my family has been Presbyterian and college-educated ever since. (Laughter.)

So black Americans, African Americans, have always depended on faith and family and education. In the most hostile times, in the most difficult times, that’s what saw us through.

But something else saw us through, and that was a belief in America and its values and its principles, even when America didn’t believe in us. It was a belief that was so strong that Frederick Douglass didn’t appeal outside of America’s principles and values, he appealed to America’s principles and values for America to be true to itself. It was such that Martin Luther King didn’t appeal outside of America’s values, he appealed to America to be true to itself in progressing for black Americans. It was true that people like Dr. Dorothy Height, the only woman among the Big Six, appealed not outside of America’s values, but to America’s values, to challenge America to be true to itself.

That should remind us, each and every one of us, African American, European American, whatever we are, that the important thing that the founders left to us was not a perfect America by any means, but an America that had principles that allowed impatient patriots to appeal to those principles and to tell America to be true to itself.

And now, as we talk about the spread of freedom and liberty to places where it has not yet been known, we need to remember that human beings are by their very nature imperfect, and therefore human institutions will be imperfect. But if we have principles of human dignity and liberty and freedom, those principles will guide impatient patriots to appeal not outside of those principles, but to those principles, to challenge their leaders and their countries to be true to themselves.

That’s the story of African Americans in America who, in appealing to America to be true to itself, in challenging America to be what America needed to be, participated in the second founding of America, an America in which the great Civil Rights leaders and those before them gave us the foundation that we have today that allows for somebody like me to emerge as America’s Secretary of State.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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