Sarah Collins Rudolph lost her older sister, her right eye, her innocence and her dream of becoming a nurse, when a deadly blast ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963.
Fifteen sticks of dynamite were planted by the Ku Klux Klan in the Birmingham, Alabama, church basement, underneath the ladies’ lounge. The bomb detonated at 10:19 a.m. that dreadful day, instantly killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson —each 14 years old—and 11-year-old Denise McNair. The girls’ deaths shocked the nation and was instrumental in the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Rudolph said she believes God allowed her to survive to tell the story and see those behind the egregious act be brought to justice.
“I still cry until this day about what happened to those girls,” said Rudolph, who recounted her story with a hospital photo hanging showing her eyes covered with large, white patches of gauze. “I know by me losing my sight that God didn’t want me to see that. It was something a young child my age should never see.”
She was just 12 at the time. The blast left her hospitalized for months and temporarily blind. Rudolph ultimately slipped into anonymity.
“I just couldn’t talk about it back then,” she said. “I was a quiet person anyway. I went through life just keeping it to myself until God touched me one day and I was able to start talking about it.”
Rudolph will be 70 this year but recounts the nearly six-decade-old story as if it just happened. In a Zoom discussion moderated by Deana Wright, the Diversity & Inclusion Program Manager for NewBridge, Rudolph discusses the lifelong trauma she battles, along with her views on forgiveness and reconciliation.
The youngest of eight (six girls and two brothers), she and her sisters got up early so their mother could wash, press and straighten their hair for church. The ritual accompanied pristine church-going clothes, socks and shoes. The girls giggled and played toss with a purse all the way to church that morning.
They were heading to the 16th Street Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been holding meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to discuss the civil rights movement. But for these young girls, they were excited because it was Youth Day at church. A day when “the young people get to take over the duties that the adults get to typically do,” Rudolph recalls.
After arriving, the young ladies went to freshen up in the girls’ lounge when Denise asked Addie to tie the sash on the back of her dress as they stood by the windows. Rudolph said she was standing near the bathroom sinks when everything in her world turned upside down.
“When she reached her hands out to tie the dress that’s when I heard this loud noise, ‘BOOM!’,” Rudolph said. “Then I said, ‘Jesus! Addie, Addie, Addie!’ But she didn’t answer.
“Then I heard somebody holler, ‘Somebody bombed the 16th Street Church!’ Their voice was so clear as if they were inside the lounge with us. Where they were standing was a big crater.”
She continued rewinding the moment. The person doing the shouting was a church deacon who cradled Rudolph into his arms and rushed her into an ambulance. In all, 26 shards of glass pierced her tiny body and she never regained sight in her right eye. She has also suffered from memory loss and post-traumatic stress.
“People all across the Birmingham area felt the vibration of that bomb,” Rudolph said. “I’m just really surprised I didn’t go deaf because it was so loud.”
She spent two months in the hospital and missed her sister Addie’s funeral. An older brother, bent on taking justice into his own hands, was stopped in his tracks by Dr. King, who attended the services.
“My brother was so angry about what had happened to Addie and me,” she recalls. “My brother had a knife and he told Dr. King he was going to go out and kill a bunch of them. I won’t call the name he used. But Martin Luther King told him ‘Don’t do it son because if you go out and do that, you’ll make yourself just like them.’ He said, ‘Don’t do it.’”
Three Klansmen were eventually convicted of the bombing. A fourth suspect died without ever being charged.
“I wondered why they’d kill little girls, sweet girls, that didn’t do anybody any harm,” Rudolph said. “They were killed going to church, worshiping God. I just didn’t understand that.”
Rudolph, who married twice and has worked much of her life as a house cleaner and a factory worker — both jobs without health insurance — has sought financial restitution at the state and municipal levels for decades.
Last year, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has apologized to Rudolph for what she called an “egregious injustice,” but declined to pay the restitution the lone survivor requested.
According to CNN: “Victims’ families and survivors of large-scale acts of terrorism such as the September 11 attacks or the Boston Marathon bombing have received compensation, but victims and descendants of victims of historic acts of racial violence, including the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, haven’t been offered the same.”
“My mother died waiting on that restitution,” Rudolph said somberly.
A book about her experience and her life in the aftermath was penned by author Tracy Snipe in conversation with Rudolph. It is titled, “The 5th Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing,” and published by Africa World Press.