Long Forgotten, 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing Survivor Speaks Out
Signs of 1963 are everywhere in Birmingham, Ala., these days. The city is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights events of that year: the children who marched until police turned fire hoses and dogs on them; Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"; and the September bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Planted by white supremacists, the bomb killed four young girls preparing to worship. It was an act of terrorism that shocked the country and propelled Congress to pass the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Tuesday in Washington, a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced plans to pursue a Congressional Gold Medal for the girls, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins — the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow. But there was another victim that day — a fifth girl, who survived the attack.
That girl, Sarah Collins Rudolph, now lives in a modest ranch-style house just north of Birmingham. She remembers the bombing like it was yesterday.
"I was standing there, just standing there bleeding," Rudolph, now 62, recalls. "And somebody came and they just picked me up and took me out through the hole and put me in [an] ambulance."
Rudolph was just 12 when her older sister Addie Mae died in the blast. Rudolph was sprayed with glass, lost an eye and was hospitalized for months. Then, she says, she was told to put it all behind her — but she can't.
"I still shake. I still jump when I hear loud sounds," Collins says. "Every day I think about it, just looking in the mirror and seeing the scars on my face. I'm reminded of it every day."
The scars are physical, mental and financial. Medical bills that have mounted over the years as Collins worked in factories and cleaning houses — mostly without health insurance. She has insurance now through her husband, George, but there are still out-of-pocket medical expenses.
In October, Rudolph went before the Birmingham City Council to ask for help. Her husband says the city ignored her.
"If you look back at the people in the trade towers, each one of those victims got paid. The families, they got paid," George Rudolph says. "But my wife, she didn't get anything. She should get compensated."
Birmingham Mayor William Bell says he's not insensitive. He appreciates the trauma Sarah Rudolph has been through. But, he says, the city cannot just write her a check.
"When you say 'reparation,' that puts a whole different legal terminology in place that we're not capable — nor are we legally obligated — to do," Bell says.
Dorothy Inman-Johnson knows the dilemma from both sides. As a teenager, she participated in the children's marches in Birmingham. And as an adult, she became the first black female mayor of Tallahassee, Fla.
"But the city could have taken the lead in creating some kind of foundation or fund that other people could contribute to that would have helped her in some way," Inman-Johnson says. "It would have been an important statement."
But that hasn't happened — and it doesn't seem like it will. Over the past 50 years, Rudolph has been left out of many events commemorating the tragedy at 16th Street Baptist Church. Even many longtime Birmingham residents didn't know her story until recently.
As the eyes of the world are trained on Birmingham this year, Rudolph says she'll watch from the comfort of her home. It's all she feels up to, she says, after 50 years forgotten.
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