Two Alabama natives — survivors of a church dynamiting that killed their sister and three other young girls half a century ago, galvanized the civil rights movement and cemented the epithet “Bombingham” in the national vocabulary — will speak today in Omaha.
Sarah Collins Rudolph, 12 at the time, and Junie Collins Williams, who was 16, will talk about the blast that claimed their 14-year-old sister, Addie Mae, on Sept. 15, 1963, and about what they hope the country can still learn from the act of racial terrorism.
Namely to “get refocused on the dream that Martin Luther King had,” Williams told The World-Herald. “Treat people the way you want to be treated. ... Be an example.”
Forty-nine years ago, Williams was the one who had to identify her sister's body based on the shoes she was wearing, the only recognizable thing left.
The girls who died at ages 11 to 14 and the 22 other people wounded were in Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church preparing to hear that day's sermon, “The Love That Forgives.”
Rudolph, sometimes called “the fifth little girl,” was in the bathroom with the four who were killed. But she survived. She spent two months in a hospital and lost sight in one eye.
Not until 1977 did a retrial convict the Ku Klux Klansman who led the planting of the time bomb. He got life in prison. Not until 2001 and 2002 were the last of his three conspirators convicted and imprisoned. One had already died a free man.
In the meantime, the images of a blasted church and bloodied girls in their white Sunday school dresses were seared into the national consciousness. And the desegregation battles going on across the South were guaranteed a place on the national agenda.
Williams, now 66, and Rudolph, 61, describe the event and its aftermath in personal terms. Accompanying them today on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus is Tracy Snipe, a political science professor from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who is working with both women on biographies due out for the bombing's 50th anniversary next year.
“I remember Addie used to like to draw and play,” Rudolph said of her sister. “She was very loving. She could make friends easily.”
“Over the years I have struggled,” Williams said. “There was no therapy at the time. ... We finally got closure” with the conviction of the bombers. The case had stalled for years because the FBI withheld evidence from the original prosecutors in the 1960s.
Rudolph, who still lives in Birmingham, worked for years in foundry and factory jobs, hampered by the damage to her eyesight.
Williams, now a resident of San Antonio, worked for years at the Alabama Department of Pensions and Security before retiring. Both women now speak around the country about their experiences, a schedule expected to quicken with the approach of next year's 50th anniversary of the bombing and as more details emerge about their place in civil rights history.
Although the bombing is commonly covered in history books, Williams said, many young people today know little about it or are not eager to acknowledge it.
“They don't want to deal with this,” she said. “But it's history, and they need to know.”
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