16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (1963)'s Lone Survivor and the Apology that Was Finally Offered
By the Governor of the State Of Alabama
Sarah Collins Rudolph
Researched by LoMaxx
Sarah Collins Rudolph is the lone survivor of the five little girls who were in the basement bathroom of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama readying for Sunday School on September 15, 1963. That morning a deadly bomb was detonated by a splinter KKK group murdering four little girls, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Sarah’s big sister Addie Mae Collins.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by the KKK was the tipping point of the Civil Rights Movement which sought to obtain equal voting rights for African-Americans; and indeed all people of color.
Sarah was only twelve years old when her right eye was ripped away as a result of the bombing. Shards of glass permanently disfigured her face and body, taking away her dreams of birthing children.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was a white supremacist terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, that killed four girls and maimed another.
I was in the ladies’ lounge when the bomb went off. You know, I remember Cynthia, Denise and Carole walking inside the lounge area and went in where the stalls was. So, when they came out, Denise passed by Addie and asked my sister to tie the sash on her dress. And I was across from them at the sink. And when Denise asked her to tie the sash, and I was looking at her when she began to tie it, and then all of a sudden, boom! I never did see her finish it, finish tying it. So, all I could do was say, call out, “Jesus!” because I didn’t know what that loud sound was. And then I called my sister, “Addie! Addie! Addie!” And she didn’t answer me. So, I thought that they had—the girls had ran on the other side of the church where the Sunday school area was.
But all of a sudden I heard a voice outside saying, “Somebody bombed the 16th Street church!” And it was so clear to me, as though that this person was right there, but they was outside where the crater was, a bomb in the church—where it bombed the hole there. And all the debris came rushing in, and I was hit in my face with glass and also in my—both eyes. Well, when the man came in—his name’s Samuel Rutledge—he came in and picked me up and carried me out of the crater, and the ambulance was out there waiting. And they rushed me to Hillman Hospital, which they changed the name. It’s now UAB Hospital.
And while I was there, my sister came in, Janie. She came in, and I asked her where was Addie. And she said that Addie had hurt her back, but she would be here tomorrow to see me. So, they rushed me on up to the operating room, and they operated on both of my eyes and took the glass from out of my face. And I had glass in my chest and stomach. So, they operated on me. And when I went back to the room—and I stayed there in the hospital for about two-and-a-half months. But at that time, when they took the bandages off my eyes, the doctor asked me what I see out of my right eye. I told him I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye. And when he took it off my left eye, all I could see was just a little light.
On Wednesday, September 30, 2020 Gov. Kay Ivey offered a "sincere, heartfelt apology" to a survivor of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and offered to meet with her attorneys as she seeks compensation from the state.
The governor's letter to an attorney for Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost her sister and was blinded in one eye in the terrorist attack on the church, did not make any commitments on any issues. But Ivey said she had instructed her general counsel, Will Parker, to begin discussions with Ishan Bhabha, one of Rudolph's attorneys.
"It would seem to me that beginning these conversations -- without prejudice for what any final outcome might produce but with a goal of finding mutual accord -- would be a natural extension of my Administration's ongoing efforts to foster fruitful conversations about the all-too-difficult -- and sometimes painful -- topic of race, a conversation occurring not only in Alabama but throughout America," Ivey wrote.
Bhabha and Alison Stein, another attorney for Rudolph, said in a statement on Wednesday they were "gratified by Gov. Ivey's unequivocal acknowledgment of the egregious injustice that Ms. Collins Rudolph suffered," as well as her apology for "the State's racist and segregationist rhetoric and policies that led to Ms. Collins Rudolph's injuries."
"We look forward to engaging in discussions in the near future with the Governor about compensation, which Ms. Collins Rudolph justly deserves after the loss of her beloved sister and for the pain, suffering and lifetime of missed opportunities resulting from the bombing,” the statement said.
Ivey's letter could mark the first time a state official has publicly considered compensating victims of the racist violence that scars Alabama history, violence that elected white officials often condoned and sometimes encouraged.
William Jelks, who served as governor of Alabama from 1901 to 1907, defended the lynching of Black men accused of rape. In the 1960s, the Alabama Legislature funded two commissions to spy on civil rights activists and manufacture propaganda against the movement.
At the same time, Gov. George Wallace deployed violent and paranoid rhetoric about civil rights activists with little restraint. About 10 days before the 16th Street Church bombing, Wallace told The New York Times that “What this country needs is a few first-class funerals, and some political funerals, too.”
Alabama officials have made a handful of steps to express regret for Alabama's bloody past. In 2007, the Alabama Legislature passed and Gov. Bob Riley signed a resolution apologizing for the state's role in slavery. In 2018, the Legislature allowed local governments to celebrate a holiday honoring Rosa Parks, but did not make it a state holiday.
But until Wednesday, few if any elected officials had entertained the possibility of extending a financial settlement to those who suffered at the hands of terrorists.
A group of Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, a center for civil rights activity, on Sept. 15, 1963. The bomb killed Addie Mae Collins, 14; Carol McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, who were changing into their choir robes at the time. Sarah Collins Rudolph was near her sister when the bomb went off, and still carries glass in her body from the attack.
No arrests were made at the time. In 1977, a Birmingham jury convicted Bob Chambliss of the murder of McNair
and sentenced to life in prison after a prosecution led by then-Attorney General Bill Baxley. In 2001 and 2002, then-U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, now a U.S. senator, secured the convictions of Thomas Blanton and Frank Bobby Cherry for their roles in the bombing.
Jones met with Rudolph's attorneys late last year, and told them he believed that Wallace and Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor "engaged in the kind of dog-whistle political rhetoric that promoted violence and led to the bombing."
Chambliss, Blanton, and Cherry all died in prison. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died of cancer in 1994 without ever being charged.
A handful of segregationist politicians, including Wallace and former Gov. John Patterson, later expressed regret for their actions during the civil rights movement. But few discussed ways to make up for their public actions.
Bhabha wrote to the governor earlier this month, saying that Rudolph sought an apology and compensation after a lifetime of difficulties caused by the bombing. Ivey wrote that "many would question whether the state could be held legally responsible" for the attack. But she added that "the racist, segregationist rhetoric used by some of our leaders during that time was wrong and would be utterly unacceptable in today's Alabama."
"Moreover, there should be no question that Ms. Collins Rudolph and the families of those who perished ... suffered an egregious injustice that has yielded untold pain and suffering over the ensuing decades," Ivey wrote. "For that, they deserve a sincere, heartfelt apology -- an apology that I extend today without hesitation or reservation."
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brian Lyman at 334-240-0185 or email@example.com. Updated at 3:56 p.m. with additional background and comment from Rudolph's attorneys.
Now, let’s consider some sense of financial restitution for the years of physical and mental suffering for Sarah; and also, payment for her loss of a dream of baring children. What is the cost for Sarah and the other victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing who have lived all of their lives in fear. We must ask ourselves, "What is the cost to live in this country with our freedoms of life, liberty and the true pursuit of justice?"