updated 10/22/2005 6:21:25 AM ET 2005-10-22T10:21:25

The memories rushed back for Condoleezza Rice when she entered the Brunetta C. Hill school for the first time in 39 years.

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She was a pupil there from grades four through six and seemed delighted she could still remember the location of her classrooms and the library in the aging two-story building in the city’s Smithfield section.

It was a happy time for the piano-playing youngster, but a period thick with racial tensions in Birmingham, best symbolized by the murder of four black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.

‘Light years’
Now things are different. Rice said Friday that Birmingham “has come a long way — light years — from when I lived here.”

She said the city might not have escaped its racist ways were it not for democratic institutions that enabled compromise to prevail over conflict.

“At one point, not that long ago, the promise of democracy seemed distant here in Alabama and throughout the American South,” Rice said in a speech at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

From Alabama to the Middle East
“But when impatient patriots in this country finally demanded their freedom and their rights, what once seemed impossible suddenly became inevitable. So it was in America. So it was in much the world. And so it will be in the Middle East.”

Rice sees a link between Birmingham’s successes and the problems she monitors daily in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere: Only with democracy is there hope for a better day.

That is Rice’s main message during the visit to her home state accompanied by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Skeptics believe she must have a deeper agenda on a homecoming trip lasting more than two days and features a heavy Washington-based media presence.

Testing the presidential waters?
Voices both in the United States and from Straw’s Britain suspect that she may be testing the presidential waters for 2008.

Rice seems annoyed at such speculation. Questioned by a pupil at the Hill school about a run for the White House, she said, somewhat wearily, “I don’t want to run for office ... I like what I’m doing.”

Aides to the secretary have been eager to put to rest doubts expressed by the accompanying media about the motives for the trip. One reason for the skepticism is that there is no precedent in recent memory for a tour of this kind.

Domestic trips by secretaries of state normally involve absences of a few hours, long enough to make a speech and return home the same day.

In addition to going to the Hill school, Rice listened to a presentation at an ultramodern medical center at the Birmingham branch of the University of Alabama.

Rice: 'The Tide is going to roll, roll, roll'
Highlights of her Saturday schedule included a visit to the church where the 1963 murders occurred and a football game between Alabama’s Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Volunteers.

“The Tide is going to roll, roll, roll,” exclaimed Rice, to the cheers of several hundred Friday in Tuscaloosa. As mementos for their visit, Rice and Straw were each presented with a football.

Straw drew distinction between rugby, a rough-and-tumble British pastime, and American football, calling the latter “rugby with commercials.” There was a light moment at the Hill school in the afternoon when Rice and Straw were taking questions from students. A boy asked the British visitor, “How’s your country?” To laughter, Straw replied, “Good.”

Straw counts himself among Rice’s admirers. In a speech Friday in Tuscaloosa that followed Rice’s, Straw said she has a rare quality among public office holders: a willingness to express her real feelings. Her constant message about the need for freedom and democracy stems from “deep beliefs” and is not contrived.

Contributing to his high regard for her was a comment she made last January when she stressed that democratic development was a time-consuming process.

“When the Founding Fathers said, ‘we the people,’ they didn’t mean me,” he quoted her as saying. Straw said he was so impressed that he wrote about her comment in his hometown newspaper in Britain.

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