Birmingham sisters make history personal
Published: Monday, September 17, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 17, 2012 12:09
On Thursday, Sept. 13th, UNO hosted Sarah Collins Rudolph and Junie Collins Williams. The two sisters survived the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. They spoke of the day of the bombing, their subsequent struggles, and finally to finding peace in sharing their story. They were joined by Dr. Tracey Snipe, a political science professor at Wright State University, who will help write the sisters’ books.
Rudolph, just 12 at the time, was in the bathroom with her sister Addie and the other girls.
“Denise [McNair] asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. She got her hands outstretched, and then all I heard was a bang,” Rudolph said.
Rudolph’s face was sprayed with glass from a stained glass window, and she called for her sister, but heard no reply. From above the deafening ringing and stinging blindness, she heard a man in the street yell, “Somebody bombed the 16th Street Church.”
That man, Samuel Rutledge, then walked through the hole in the wall of the church, and carried her out.
Williams was 16, and had Sunday School class upstairs.
“I didn’t like my class upstairs, I used to sit in this lounge and read my Sunday school book,” Williams said to laughter in the room.
She was warned one day by a lady who worked in the church who said she would tell her parents she skipped. On the day of the bombing, Williams was sitting in the lounge when she remembered thinking, 'My mom and dad don’t play,’ so I headed up to class.” That day, she didn’t use the staircase on the wall that was bombed, but instead went around the front. She said the woman who warned her was an example that “God speaks to us, but he doesn’t holler down.”
After the bombing, Rudolph spent weeks in the hospital. She had over 20 pieces of glass removed from her face and lost her right eye. Williams agonized over guilt at a disagreement she had with her sister Addie about a ring she wanted to borrow longer. Williams was the only one home the night the police came to ask for someone to verify a body.
“I had to go... and when I did, I knew it was her [Addie] because of the shoe she was wearing on her foot,” Williams said.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the eulogy for the girls who died in the bombing, and the Birmingham bombing became a rallying point for the Civil Rights Movement. This is the story many of us have heard, but the story the sisters gave on Thursday reflected their struggles.
“When I was in high school no one talked to me about the bombing,” Rudolph said. “I was very glad.”
Williams’ sentiments were similar.
“Every anniversary reporters would come by, and I’d turn them away. I couldn’t handle it,” Williams said.
Both women struggled with depression and guilt, and didn’t have counseling after the event.
At the time, the girls didn’t know much about the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.
“I knew my mother went to meetings and talked about rights and freedom," Rudolph said. "We lived two blocks from a school, but it was only for white children, and I remember thinking it was unfair we had to walk seven blocks to ours.”
Williams agreed. She thought it was for the better because she could avoid the racial animosity, and grow up instead in a different environment.
“The younger generation didn’t have much shared with them often,” Williams said.
Williams moved out of Alabama to San Antonio, Texas.
Rudolph found a new church and pastor that made her feel reborn.
She told of her baptism, “I ran so fast to the front that I left my shoes in the aisle. When he prayed over me I fell to the ground, just like you see in the movies and TV.”
The audience laughed with her, but Rudolph and Williams both stressed that without God, they wouldn’t be sharing their stories.
During the question and answer period, most of the audience wanted to know if the sisters saw improvement today. Rudolph and Williams explained they finally felt like they had come to peace with their stories in the Civil Rights Movement, and said they had learned “not to see colors, but to see people.”
Many attendees were choked up and tearing. One woman summed up the tone of the presentation when she said, “You two don’t seem to have any bitterness or resentment.”
Students and classes attended the presentation. Samantha Owens, who attended with her class, “Race, Class, and Gender in the United States,” enjoyed the presentation.
“I love how UNO can bring in primary sources and firsthand accounts of history,” student Mary Koneck-Wilcox said.
Many in the audience agreed, and eagerly asked about the books the sisters plan to have out next year for the 50th Anniversary. The books will retain the personal narrative of the sisters but be framed in a historical context.
“You can’t get their stories anywhere else,” Snipe said. “You can find histories of the Civil Rights Movement anywhere.”