Birmingham, Alabama, is a changing city — it’s going through a tech industry boom, it’s got a burgeoning food scene and millennials are flocking there for the affordable housing and job opportunities.
It’s also a city grappling with a painful past, one that includes lynching and marches and the Ku Klux Klan. It was also the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that claimed the lives of four young girls: Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins.
But there was a survivor among the girls in the downstairs ladies’ lounge. Her name is Sarah Collins Rudolph, Addie Mae’s younger sister. She calls herself the “fifth little girl,” and has spent her life coming to terms with the physical — and mental — fallout from the attack.
Rudolph says she’s not surprised that many have never heard of her. She says she was “just a survivor.” But she admits, with a little prodding, that she’s a carrier of history. In fact, she remembers every detail of that Sept. 15, 1963.
She says the group of girls arrived at the church late, heading right to the downstairs bathroom “to freshen up” after a long walk. Rudolph watched her sister start to tie the sash on Denise’s dress, and then, “Boom, the bomb went off.”
That image is burned into Rudolph’s memory. She says she never saw Addie Mae finish tying that sash.
Blinded by the shattered glass, Rudolph was rescued by a church deacon and hospitalized. She says she thinks about it every day, and still sees the scars on her face every time she looks at her reflection in the mirror. She ended up losing an eye in the bombing.
While she was hospitalized, a Life magazine photographer snapped an iconic photo of Rudolph lying in her hospital bed, her eyes covered in fist-sized gauze pads. She says she had no idea that the photo had been taken, nor that it polarized a nation that suddenly turned its focus to the civil rights issues rocking the South.
At the time, she says, “The police was involved. The mayor, the governor. They just hated our color. We couldn’t even call the police if we wanted. All of them in the office was Ku Klux Klan. So we were having a rough time.”
“I never knew a good Ku Klux Klan, really,” Rudolph says.
Rudolph recognizes the four girls did not die in vain: She says that horrific act of violence was among the catalysts for the creation of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. But that doesn’t take away from the profound disappointment she and her husband have in the people of her hometown.
Despite the severity of her injuries, Rudolph received no counseling, little recognition and no restitution.
“The way they treated me here in the city of Birmingham, they don’t acknowledge me as being the fifth little girl,” she says.
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SOURCE: 90.9 WBUR, Karyn Miller-Medzon, Robin Young, and Ciku Theuri