MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Sarah Collins Rudolph still carries glass from the bombing that killed her sister and three other little girls on Sept. 15, 1963.
The terrorist attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church — when Rudolph was 12 years old — left her blind in her right eye. It ended her dream of becoming a nurse and forced her to cope for decades with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now Rudolph is seeking an apology from the state and compensation. Both Rudolph and her attorneys say then-Gov. George Wallace’s violent rhetoric created conditions that led to the bombing.
“When all that was going on in the '60s, the state of Alabama was involved,” Rudolph said in a phone interview with her husband George on Wednesday. “They were promoting the hatred and the racist stuff that was going on.”
Attorneys Ishan Bhabha, Caroline Cease and Alison Stein wrote in a Sept. 14 letter to Gov. Kay Ivey that Rudolph’s injuries were caused by “criminals directly incited by state leaders to ‘take the offensive’ on white supremacy and pay the ‘hard price’ to retain ‘freedom of race.’ ”
“The actions of the bombers, affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and inspired and motivated by then-Governor Wallace’s racist rhetoric, left Ms. Collins hospitalized for months and scarred, both physically and mentally, to this day,” the letter says.
Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote in an email Wednesday that the office received the letter and was reviewing it. The Washington Post first reported the story.
The move by Rudolph could bring Alabama's official actions during the civil rights movement under closer scrutiny. The Legislature funded two groups to spy on civil rights activists and gather embarrassing information on the movement. Wallace and other white leaders of the day falsely accused civil rights activists of being stooges for communists, and sometimes went further.
Wallace, engaged in a bitter fight to protect segregation in Birmingham schools, told The New York Times 10 days before the bombing that “the society is coming apart at the seams.”
“What good is it doing to force these situations when white people nowhere in the South want integration?” he said. “What this country needs is a few first-class funerals, and some political funerals, too.”
Bhabha said in a phone interview Wednesday that the compensation Rudolph sought would be a “matter of discussion” with the state.
“Nothing is really going to give Sarah closure, but it could be beneficial to her and to all of those who suffered as a result of that,” he said.
Sarah Collins was 12 on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963 when she went to 16th Street Baptist Church’s annual Youth Day event. Collins; her sister Addie Mae, 14; Carol McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were changing into their choir robes in in the church’s basement when at least 15 sticks of dynamite planted by four Klansmen exploded under the steps of the church, near the basement. McNair; Robertson; Wesley and Collins’ sister Addie Mae were killed. A church deacon pulled Sarah Collins out of the wreckage.
Rudolph’s husband, George, was in church on Birmingham’s South Side, about 10 miles away, and could hear the bomb when it went off.
“That was a loud explosion,” said George, a Vietnam veteran. “For her to live through that and see that, that really did something to her. When she talks, I let people know Sarah went through Vietnam at 12 years old. No child should have to go through that.”
Rudolph was in the hospital for weeks and did not return to the 16th Street Baptist Church after it reopened eight months following the attack. With her right eye blind, she worked what she calls “odd jobs,” including foundry work and housekeeping.
“She often says that this completely changed the trajectory of her life,” Stein said. “She was a little girl who had dreams of becoming a nurse. When this happened, her life took an immediate turn. Not only was she blind, but she became more introverted.”
The bombers escaped immediate prosecution, but Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the investigation in 1970. In 1977, a jury convicted Robert Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, to life in prison for McNair’s murder. The FBI reopened the investigation in 1995, and a grand jury indicted Thomas Blanton and Frank Bobby Cherry for their roles in the bombing. Juries convicted Blanton and Cherry in 2001 and 2002, after prosecutions led by then-U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, now the junior U.S. senator from the state.
All three men died in prison. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died of cancer in 1994 without ever being charged. Rudolph said Wednesday the prosecutions did not provide her any peace.
“When they came to trial, then went to jail, they didn’t do nothing but die,” she said. “They were old people.”
Attorneys for Rudolph met with Jones in December to discuss a path forward. Jones said in a statement on Wednesday that he “did not feel it was my place to offer legal advice.”
“I did, however, confirm my belief based on my own research for the trials of two of the four Klansmen responsible for the bombing, that the State of Alabama, through George Wallace and others, and the city of Birmingham through Bull Connor and others, engaged in the kind of dog-whistle political rhetoric that promoted violence and led to the bombing," the statement said.
The state government has expressed some regret for Alabama’s sins. In 2007, Gov. Bob Riley signed a resolution apologizing for the state’s role in slavery. The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles in 2013 issued posthumous pardons to three of the Scottsboro Nine, falsely accused of rape in 1931. In 2018, the Alabama State Board of Education expunged the records of nine Alabama State University students expelled in 1960 for participating in a sit-in.
Rudolph is working on a book about her life. said an apology and compensation would “mean a lot to me.”
“I’m still paying bills from that day,” she said. “I still have to go to the doctor for my eye.”
Follow Brian Lyman on Twitter: @lyman_brian
This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victim seeks apology, compensation