Sarah Collins Rudolph


>>I do some consulting
work on American–>>The feeling in the room was–>>You don’t ever say to her– [ Multiple Speakers ]>>– doing in autism.>>On September 15,
1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist
church in Birmingham, Alabama. Five girls were preparing
for worship in the basement of the building. Four were killed by the blast,
but the fifth girl survived. Twelve-year-old Sarah Collins
was hospitalized for months and ultimately lost her
right eye to her injuries. Now more than 50 years
after that tragic event, Sarah Collins Rudolph still
suffers from residual effects of the explosion, yet
is often overlooked in the larger discussions
of the bombing and its role in energizing the
Civil Rights Movement. We’ll talk with her about
living in the shadows of that historic tragedy,
about delayed justice, and about today’s most
pressing civil rights struggles. Here’s our conversation
with Sarah Collins Rudolph. Sarah Collins Rudolph,
welcome to the program.>>Thank you.>>Most Americans know the
story of the four little girls who were killed on September 15, 1963 in the 16th Street
Baptist Church, but fewer know that there was actually a fifth
little girl who survived, and, of course, that’s you.>>Yeah.>>Why do you suppose
that’s the case?>>When it happened, people
weren’t saying anything too much about the survivor because
there was so much going out about the death
of the four girls.>>One of them being
your sister.>>Yes, yes.>>Fourteen-year-old Addie Mae.>>Yes, my sister Addie,
because we were together in the ladies lounge.>>In the basement.>>Yes.>>What do you remember
about that morning?>>I remember how
we walked to church. It was Janie, Addie and myself. We were so happy, and
Janie had a little purse, and we were throwing it backward
and forward to each other. And we had to walk
about 17 blocks, and we was having a
good time all the way to church that morning.>>And you were there early. Not mass, but church
service began at 11:00.>>But we was trying to
get to Sunday School. But when we got to
Sunday school, Sunday school was already in
session, so me and Addie stayed in the ladies lounge, waiting
till Sunday school turned out. And Janie class was upstairs
because, by being her age, they had all the
senior classes upstairs. And that morning, while I
was looking out the door, waiting for our class to start,
and I seen the girls come in. Cynthia Wesley, Denise
McNair, and Carole Robertson. So they came into the–>>The other girls who
were killed that morning.>>Yes. So they came into
the lounge and went on back to the other side,
where the stars was. And they came out together. Denise was in front, and
she stopped where Addie was. Addie was standing
by the window, and I was on the other
side of her, by that sink. And when she stopped,
she asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. And when Addie reached out to
tie it, we stood there looking, but we didn’t get a chance to
see her tie it, because that’s when the bomb went off.>>There had been literally
dozens of bombs in Birmingham, Alabama in the year-and-a-half
prior to that event. Were you at all afraid, at
that point, as a child growing up in Birmingham, which,
of course, at the time, was the most racially segregated
and discriminatory city in the U.S. Did you
have a sense of fear?>>No, I didn’t have
a sense of fear. I remember when they
bombed Arthur Shores’ house. We heard about that. He was a lawyer. And I heard about the bombing
in Shuttlesworth, the church. Didn’t nothing happen to them. But when the bomb went off, it looked like it
was just something that Birmingham was
used to, hearing bombs. And by going to church
that morning, we never did think they
would bomb the church up.>>I just watched the critically
acclaimed movie “Selma”, and I have to say
that the scene, which is a little bit different
than what happened in real life, of the girls walking
down the steps. Of course, you were
actually one of them. When that explosion happened, I
literally jumped out of my seat, and so did so many
of the people–>>I did.>>– sitting around me. I can’t imagine what being
there must have been like. You saw the movie too.>>Yes.>>What was your
reaction to the movie? And what did they get right,
and what didn’t they get right?>>Well, for one thing, the girls weren’t
walking down steps. That was one. And when the bomb went off,
my husband was with me, and we both almost
jumped out our seat, because I wasn’t expecting
that on that scene. But it just really scared
us, and it took me back to that moment, that sound. And it just really
scared both of us.>>You actually spent
more than two months in the hospital after
that event. Tell us a little bit about
the injuries you sustained that morning.>>Well, when the bomb went
off, and I turned to look at Addie tying Denise’s
sash, and all of a sudden, all the debris just
came rushing in. And when it rushed
in, a lot of glass got in my face and my eyes. And they were able
to save my left eye, but I was blind instantly
in my right eye, and had so many pieces
of glass in my face, the doctor had said it was about
26 pieces of glass in my face that was in my eye, together.>>There’s a heartbreaking
photograph of you in the hospital. You have two patches
over your eyes. And I understand that you
didn’t know right away that your sister Addie died,
nor did you know at the time that you actually lost
the vision completely in that one eye and that
your right eye was removed.>>Yeah, I didn’t know
the girls was killed, by me being blind
instant, and they came and took me out the church. Because when the bomb went off,
I called Addie three times. About three times I called her
name, but she didn’t answer. So the first thing I thought
about, maybe they had ran on the other side where
the Sunday school area was. But I found out later, when
I arrived at the hospital, Janie was there,
my other sister.>>Janie.>>Yeah. And I asked
her, I said, where Addie? And she said that Addie hurt
her back, but she was going to come and see me tomorrow. So I guess she didn’t
want to get me upset that Addie was killed. So she was talking to somebody
while I was laying on the couch, because they told me the
eye doctor wasn’t there. So while I was laying there,
waiting on the doctor, that’s when I heard her say,
tell the nurse, somebody, she said, “One of my
sisters got killed.”>>And you just overheard it.>>Yeah, overheard her. That’s how I found out. So when they got through
operating on my eye, that’s when I went back
upstairs to my room. My mother was there. She let me know that all
the girls were killed. I was the only one
survived that.>>Although there wasn’t, we
didn’t know of such a thing as post-traumatic
stress disorder, you certainly have suffered from post-traumatic stress
disorder as a result of that.>>Yes I have. When I would hear loud sounds,
I’d just jump, you know. And that’s something
that I still have. And it seems like if
I turn the water on, if it rush out too
fast, I jumps. All that is still in me, and
it’s just something that looks like I will never get over it. But I hope one day I will.>>I’m wondering
what it’s felt like, all of these 50 plus years,
to have, in some respects, been in the shadow of
the girls who died. Has that been difficult?>>Yes, in a way, it hurts
because I still live it. When I put makeup
on, I still remember. And when I look in the mirror, prosthetic eyes,
I still remember. Something like that,
you can’t forget when you have the
injuries on you and you have to see
it every day.>>You actually have flashbacks?>>Yeah. It always
takes me back, just knowing I’m putting this
on because of what somebody did to me, to bomb the church. And it looks like
something I’ll never forget.>>One of the biggest tragedies
is that, despite the fact that the FBI actually
had information about who the perpetrators
of this heinous crime was, they kept it to themselves. And no one was prosecuted
until 1977, when Robert Chambliss finally
was prosecuted for the murder of these four girls
and went to jail. Didn’t serve long enough. He was sentenced to life, but
died eight years later and, as far as I’m concerned,
got out easy.>>Yeah.>>Was that some
closure for you, that finally there was
some justice in 1977?>>At first, I really wasn’t
satisfied about them waiting so long to have his trial, because they lived their
life, and they lived it. But the girls, they didn’t get
a chance to live their life out. So I felt like, since the FBI
and all the city officials knew about it, they should have
put them on trial right then and there, because
they lived, and had, doing what they wanted to do. So the girls didn’t
get that chance.>>And in fact, two of the perpetrators weren’t
convicted until 2001 and 2002. So they were decades,
living free, before they finally served. A fourth one died before
he could go to trial. And I think one of the biggest
tragedies is that your mother, never, she died before anyone
was convicted of these crimes.>>Yes, and that
was 38 years later. And one of them, Cherry,
tried to get out of it by saying he was too sick. But–>>Robert Cherry.>>Yeah.>>Bobby Cherry.>>Yeah, Bobby Frank Cherry. And he was playing as though
he was too sick to go to trial, but they took him to
Brice and they found out he could go to trial. Because every time
I would see him, he would have a whole
pack of pills in his hand. And he was saying
he wasn’t able, but I was glad they
went on and–>>They were saying that he
was psychologically not capable to stand trial.>>Right, but he was, because
when they sent him to Brice, they found out he was able. Yeah.>>Another tragedy of all of
this is that, to this day, you do not know where your
sister Addie Mae Collins is buried. You wanted to move her casket
from one cemetery to another. And when she was exhumed,
tell us what happened and why you don’t
know where she is.>>Well, the reason
why we didn’t know because after the funeral they
had three funerals out there in one day, and it
was a lot of people.>>And Martin Luther King–>>Did her eulogy.>>Did the eulogy, did
the funeral sermon.>>But anyway, by so many
people was out there that day, Janie and them couldn’t
remember, but the only thing she remember,
her remains was by a tree. They buried her close to a tree. And we wanted to move
her, because I would come out there before they
dedicated this headstone. Because they told us that
it was a cross indicating where she was located. And this man, he had been going
out there, just seeing a cross out there, so he decided to get her a headstone. So when they moved, exhumed
it, there was somebody under it had false teeth.>>So you knew, obviously, this was not your 14-year-old
sister, with false teeth.>>Right. And we wanted
to move her to a mausoleum because the cemetery
was not kept up. I went out there one day, they
had old, broke down lawn mower, and the grass was
growing real tall. And we decided we would
move her into a mausoleum, but I had the papers
all ready to fix her up. And then the lady called us, she was out there
interviewing People Magazine. She called us. She said, well, the man
said that Addie’s not here. It’s someone with false teeth. And that was so shocking to
know I had been going out there, putting flowers out there, and
found out I was putting flowers on somebody with false teeth. And that really hurt.>>Today, if someone experienced
what you experienced, there would be a victim’s
compensation fund. When this happened to you, not only in some ways were
you overshadowed by the death of the four girls, but it
sounds like, in some ways, you had to deal with
the repercussions of this on your own.>>Yes. Yes I did. You know, we was talking about
didn’t no one say anything about the one that survived,
but when I got old enough, I began to go to places to see
could I get victim compensation for Addie’s death
and my injuries. And people say, “Well, you
know, that happened in ’63. We can’t do nothing about that.” And it was really shocking,
here I am, paying bills for the injury they did to me. Because for years, I had
glaucoma in my left eye.>>So you were at risk
of total blindness?>>Yes. And the doctor said that
I still have a piece of glass in my left eye, but they
didn’t want to remove it because I just have one eye. And all this, I got to
pay these bills on my own. And I was taking drops for so
many years, for this glaucoma, and after while, the doctor said that now the drops not doing any
good, and he was going to have to just cut an incision in my
eye for the fluid to drain out.>>To relieve the
pressure in your eye?>>Yes. And I had that
done, and he still told me that I have a cataract too. And right now, he wants to just
try glasses, different types, that strengthen that eye,
because he still don’t want to just mess with it, because
he don’t want me to go blind. So he said, until then, that’s
what they was going to do.>>You were an A student
before this happened.>>Yes.>>And you had ambitions
to become a nurse when you graduated high school.>>Yes.>>How did this explosion
change your life’s path?>>Well, it changed a lot
because a bombing like that, you don’t never be the same. I didn’t really study and feel
like that, because I was always so nervous and so fearful
I just couldn’t do it, because it changed my life, and
I was sickened by Addie’s death. I didn’t become a nurse. What I did, I began to get
jobs like in foundries. I did foundry work.>>Factory work.>>Yeah. And also, I
worked in one foundry. It was three years. Then I worked in another
foundry for 14 years. And it just changed
my whole life, really.>>We have heard so many,
in the movie “Selma” and in Spike Lee’s
documentary “Four Little Girls.” This incident, on
September 15, 1963, is referred to as
a turning point. As having energized the
Civil Rights Movement. As having created a
consciousness among White Americans that nothing else
prior to that could have. And I’m wondering how
you feel about that. And I want to also add that the
Reverend Jesse Jackson said, “We transformed a crucifixion
into a resurrection.” But from where you’re sitting,
what does that feel like?>>Well, I know those
girls did things to change, but it was just a shame that
those young girls had to die like that, because only
thing we was trying to get was our rights. And it had to take
death to get it? And little girls didn’t grow
up to be what they want to be? It kind of hurts. It really does, because they
didn’t have to die like that for things to go
right in Birmingham.>>The reason Martin Luther
King and SNCC descended on Birmingham was because of
the rampant discrimination in that city, and I’m
wondering if you and your family or any members of your
family were involved in the movement at the time.>>Yes, my mother was. My mother would go to the movement meetings
every Wednesday. And I remember her always going. She didn’t miss a meeting.>>And they were held
in the very church where the bomb exploded.>>Yes. And we would
stay home by ourselves. She would go to the meeting. She was very, very
interested in marching, and she wanted our rights. Birmingham wasn’t right. When you’re in Birmingham
at that time, if we needed a policeman,
call the policeman, we couldn’t even
get a policeman, because they were against us.>>One-third were to
know to be Klansmen.>>Yes. And people in
the fire department, they put the water
hose on the people. Put the dogs on the marchers. The only thing we wanted
to do, we wanted to change, we wanted to go in the
stores and buy our clothes and try our clothes on. They didn’t let us try our
clothes on, but we can buy it. And we couldn’t try
the shoes on. Our mother had to get a
marker and mark our feet size on a piece of paper, and
then go and buy shoes for us. Yeah, we wanted all that
changed, because we were feeling like we weren’t even
human beings. We couldn’t use the restroom. We couldn’t even use the
hydrant and get water. They got Black water,
White water signs on that. And we wanted all that changed.>>What Is Birmingham,
Alabama like today?>>Well, things have changed. I have seen a lot of
changes in Birmingham. All the signs are down, and
now we can get things we want. We don’t have to go to windows. We can use the same restroom. A lot of things have changed.>>If you were to
pinpoint what you see as the most pressing civil
rights issue of today, what would you say it is?>>I still see some
of the maybe some of the police might be strict. But I really haven’t noticed it because they haven’t stopped
me driving or anything. But maybe that’s probably it, and maybe something
concerning our mayor. Maybe things like that. When we go to our mayor, we try
to let him know what happened. People, they’re not
really concerned. That’s about it. But other than that, Birmingham
has really changed a lot.>>The three men who
were ultimately convicted of this crime, only
one is still living. And he, like the
other two, continues, despite overwhelming
evidence, continues to deny that he was involved in this. And yet, there’s evidence
that they planted something in the neighborhood
of 122 sticks of dynamite under that church. Has anyone reached out to you? And would there be more closure
if someone apologized for this?>>Oh, yes. My husband reached out to
Blanton, Thomas Blanton. He’s the only one–>>Who’s still living–>>Yeah.>>– and in jail, in prison.>>So when he wrote the letter, the first thing he said,
that he didn’t do it. He said it was the man
that killed Viola Liuzzo. It was that person. And I haven’t had
anybody to apologize. I went to court with
all of them. Robert Chambliss, Thomas
Blanton, and Cherry. But they never said, they
haven’t said they’d apologize.>>Remarkably, from what I’m
reading, you have forgiven them. And forgiveness is, I think it
can be defined different ways by different people. So I’m curious to know, what
does forgiveness mean to you?>>I went on to forgive
them because I didn’t want to hold unforgiveness in me. Because they say when you
hold it on the inside, you–>>When you hold the
anger and the hate.>>Yeah. And they
say don’t get sick, different things like arthritis. These sickness come on you. So I don’t want that
to come up on me because I’m holding on to it. But one thing, I
can forgive them. But like I was telling you
earlier, I can’t forget, simply because when
I look in the mirror and see what they’ve done to me, it’s always a reminder
of that day.>>What has it meant to you
to finally share your story? There was a fifth girl there, and that fifth girl is
Sarah Collins Rudolph.>>Well, it meant a lot. Because I was there, and I believe God left
me there to be a witness. Because many people, for years, was saying that these young
girls was in there putting on their silk robe, getting
ready for the youth service, and that wasn’t what it was. It was just the fact that
they’re class just turned out, and they just went
to the restroom.>>It was just another
day, another Sunday school that forever changed
all of your lives.>>It did. Yes it did. And it was wrong for
them to put a bomb under 16th Street Baptist
Church, and kill those girls, because they were innocent. Sweet girls. All of them was very sweet. And killed them.>>Finally, what did all of
this do to your faith in God?>>I believe it made my
faith stronger because, when the bomb went off,
I called on the Lord. And I really believe since I had
that opportunity to call on Him, He came and He saved me,
simply for that purpose. Because where those
girls were standing, that’s where they
placed the bomb. But He had me on the other side
of the church, by the water, and He saved me to let people
know what really happened that day.>>Sarah Collins Rudolph, thank
you so much for talking with us.>>Thank you for having me.>>I hope you enjoyed
our conversation with Sarah Collins Rudolph. For more information about the
16th Street Church bombing, visit our website at
conversations.psu.edu. I’m Patty Satalia. We hope you’ll join us
for our next conversation from Penn State.>>Production funding provided
in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
and by viewers like you. Thank you.>>This has been a
production of WPSU.>>Sarah Collins Rudolph is
the fifth girl and survivor of the 16th Street
Baptist Church bombings.>>I can forgive them, but
like I was telling you earlier, I can’t forget, simply because
when I look in the mirror and see what they’ve done to me, it’s always a reminder
of that day.>>Sarah Collins Rudolph on the next Conversations
from Penn State.

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