By Verna Gates
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - When a church bombing killed four young black girls on a quiet Sunday morning in 1963, life for a young Condoleezza Rice changed forever.
The racial attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church, in the former secretary of state's hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, rocked the nation and led to sweeping changes in laws governing civil rights.
But for Rice, just 8 years old at the time, the tragedy meant the death of a little girl she used to play dolls with, and the loss of her own youthful sense of security.
"As an 8-year-old, you don't think about terror of this kind," said Rice, who recounted on Friday her memory of the bombing and its aftermath in remarks to a gathering of civic leaders in Birmingham as part of several days of events leading up to the 50th anniversary of the bombing on September 15.
Rice's hometown had become a place too dangerous for black children to leave their own neighborhoods, or go downtown and visit Santa Claus, or go out of the house after dark.
"There was no sanctuary. There was no place really safe," she said.
Rice's friend, 11-year-old Denise McNair, died in the blast along with 14-year-olds Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley. Their deaths at the hands of Ku Klux Klan members garnered national support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Events for the 50th anniversary of the bombing will include a screening of filmmaker Spike Lee's new documentary, "Four Little Girls," and a memorial service on Sunday scheduled to include U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Rice has a treasured photo of her friend accepting a kindergarten certificate from Rice's father, who was a pastor at another church. McNair had gone to preschool there. McNair's father was the community photographer, documenting birthday parties and weddings in happier times.
"Everyone in the black community knew one of those girls," Rice said.
Her father told her the bombing had been done by "hateful men," she said, but it was an act that later uncovered something ultimately good.
"Out of great tragedy, people began to recognize our humanity, and it brought people together," said Rice.
The bombing left its mark on her even as an adult, when as U.S. Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, she used the experience to understand the plight of Palestinian and Israeli victims of bombs and attacks during peace negotiations.
"I told them I know what it is like for a Palestinian mother, who has to tell her child they can't go somewhere," Rice said, "and how it is for an Israeli mother, who puts her child to bed and wonders if the child will be alive in the morning."
But with all of the progress made in civil rights during the 50 years since the blast, Rice cites education as the biggest impediment to equality in modern times.
She expressed dismay at racial disparities in the quality of education for minorities and criticized the "soft bigotry of low expectations" in a system she said challenges black students less than others.
"Even racism can't be an excuse for not educating our kids," she said. "If a kid cannot read, that kid is done. A child in a bad school doesn't have time for racism to be eradicated. They have to learn today."
(This story is corrected with spelling of Condoleezza in headline and first paragraph)
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Eric Walsh)