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A Forgotten Victim of the Klan Is Still Waiting for Help

In 1963, Sarah Collins lost a sister, three friends and her right eye, when a bomb went off at a church in Birmingham.

Sarah Collins Rudolph.
Sarah Collins Rudolph at her home in Birmingham.
(Photographs by David Kidd)
“It sounded just like a clap of thunder, and then there was a big ball of smoke.” This is how a witness described the bomb blast that killed four young black girls in Birmingham, Ala., 59 years ago. Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins died instantly when a dozen sticks of dynamite went off just inches from where they were standing, in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Three of the girls were 14 years old. The youngest, Denise McNair, was only 11.

Almost immediately, the four girls came to symbolize a turning point in the civil rights movement. “They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said three days later, before 3,000 mourners.

Barely mentioned in newspaper accounts of the day, there was a fifth girl in the church basement the morning of the blast. Addie Mae Collins’ younger sister, Sarah, was the last person to see the girls alive. Just a few feet from her friends, 12-year-old Sarah was bloodied, but still standing, in a cloud of dust and rubble when a rescuer scooped her up and took her outside through the gaping hole created by the bomb.

Sarah Collins was not able to attend her sister’s funeral. She would never meet Dr. King or hear him eulogize Addie Mae and their friends. Instead, she would spend months in a hospital bed, her face and chest disfigured from flying debris and shards of glass. Doctors could not save her right eye. Long a footnote to history, Sarah’s story is largely unknown or forgotten by most everyone familiar with the story of “the four little girls.” But she is alive.
The headstone marking Addie May Collins’ grave.
Before her headstone was placed in 1990, Addie Mae’s grave was marked with a wooden stake.
Over the past several years, Sarah has come to believe that then-governor George Wallace and other elected leaders of the day bear at least some responsibility for what happened to her. The governor’s inflamed rhetoric and open hostility toward African Americans arguably encouraged the violence visited upon Birmingham and Alabama. The state, she feels, owes her something for a lifetime of pain and suffering.

With no help from the city of Birmingham or the state of Alabama, Sarah continues to be responsible for a lifetime of medical expenses related to her injuries. “I haven’t got restitution,” she says. “And yet I’ve still got to pay the bills when I go to the doctor.” After all these years Sarah is still determined to get her due. And she is no longer fighting alone.

From Birmingham to Bombingham

The city of Birmingham was established shortly after the Civil War, at the intersection of two rail lines and close to abundant deposits of iron ore, coal, and limestone, essential for making steel. By the end of the 19th century, more than 20 major steel and iron-making companies were operating in the region, drawing tens of thousands of workers to man them. Owing to its rapid growth in industry and population, Alabama’s burgeoning economic powerhouse declared itself “The Magic City,” erecting a huge steel-framed sign saying so, at the entrance to the train station in 1926. But not everyone benefitted equally from a booming Birmingham.

An entrenched system of segregation persisted well into 20th-century Birmingham. Better-paying jobs were off-limits to African Americans who were corralled into their own distinct neighborhoods. But by the late 1940s, the color line began to be tested as middle-class black families moved into white neighborhoods. The backlash was at times intense.

Neglected and crumbling, the giant “Magic City” sign was torn down in 1952. By then the city had come to be known by a new name, “Bombingham,” due to the number of racially motivated attacks on black-owned homes, churches and meeting places. Beginning in 1947 and through the nearly two decades that followed, there were more than 50 unsolved bombings and assaults. One neighborhood is still known as Dynamite Hill because of the number of blasts that occurred there.

A Segregated City

Segregation was not just the custom in Birmingham, it was the law. The city passed a number of ordinances between 1944 and 1951 that were intended to enforce the strict separation of races and maintain white supremacy. Restaurants were prohibited from serving whites and blacks in the same room. Streetcars had to provide separate entrances and exits. Even pastimes did not escape regulation. “It shall be unlawful,” one statute decreed, “for a Negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, softball, football, basketball or similar games.”
A police officer inspecting damage done to the home of civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth in 1950s Birmingham.
Attacks on the houses of Birmingham Blacks were a common occurrence in the 1950s. Here, police inspect damage done to the home of civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth.
(Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Lewis Arnold, Birmingham News)
Even though African Americans made up 40 percent of the city’s population, there were no black police officers, firefighters, bus drivers or bank tellers. None of the downtown stores would employ black salesclerks. In response to this, local church leader, activist and bombing survivor Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth initiated a boycott of the downtown shopping district in the spring of 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined forces with Shuttlesworth, initiating a series of sit-ins and marches, intended to provoke mass arrests. King, among the hundreds arrested, wrote his seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from a prison filled to capacity.

As part of the spring offensive, hundreds of school-age youth were encouraged to march through the downtown streets as part of a “Children’s Crusade,” departing in groups of 50 from the 16th Street Baptist Church. One such student demonstration was met with police attack dogs and high-pressure fire hoses, under the direction of Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s commissioner of public safety. Film and photographs of the confrontation provoked national outrage, galvanizing widespread support for civil rights reform.
Police using dogs to control student demonstrators next to the 16th Street Baptist Church in May of 1963.
Police use dogs to control a crowd of student demonstrators next to the 16th Street Baptist Church in May of 1963.
(Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Unknown photographer, Birmingham News)
By the 10th of May, city leaders and protesters had signed off on “The Birmingham Truce Agreement,” a timetable for desegregating public facilities by removing “whites only” signs, integrating lunch counters, releasing civil rights prisoners, and promoting black employment. Segregationists soon responded by bombing King’s motel and the home of his brother. Bombings and attacks continued over the summer, culminating on Sept. 15, when members of the Klan placed sticks of dynamite near the basement window of a downtown church.

Sept. 15, 1963

Sarah Collins and her older sisters, Addie Mae and Janie, set off for church on foot Sunday morning, the 15th of September, 1963. The sky was overcast, with temperatures in the mid-60s. It was a mile and a half between their small wood frame house and the 16th Street Baptist Church. “That Sunday we were going to have a youth day program,” says Sarah. “And we were so excited.”

Janie was carrying a purse that looked like a little black football. In a playful mood, the sisters made a game of it, throwing the purse back and forth among themselves as they made their way to 16th Street. “We [were] just runnin’ and catchin’ it,” Sarah says. “We were laughing all the way.” Whether or not their impromptu game of football was the cause, the walk took longer than usual, and the girls arrived late to church.

With Sunday school already in session, the three sisters headed instead to the ladies’ lounge, tucked into a back corner of the church basement, not far from where Addie Mae and Sarah’s class was meeting. After a few minutes, Janie left the lounge and headed to her class upstairs, admonishing her sisters on her way out. “Y’all hurry up and go on to class, okay?” But rather than risk the wrath of their teacher for being tardy, the girls decided to stay where they were. Alone in the small lounge, they took a seat on the couch beneath a basement window and waited for class to be over.
People on the street outside the damaged church building next to a damaged car.
At least a dozen sticks of dynamite were used to bomb the church. The street was littered with damaged cars and debris after the blast.
(Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Tom Self, Birmingham News)
Minutes after classes ended, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Robson entered the lounge, followed closely by Denise McNair. Cynthia and Carole were wearing white dresses that morning. As for what colors Addie and Denise wore that day, Sarah is at a loss to remember, except that Denise’s outfit included a sash.

Before long, the four friends were together again, lined up in close formation, in front of the window. The windowsill was a few feet from the restroom floor, but level with the sidewalk outside. Sarah was standing at the sink, watching as Denise turned around and asked Addie Mae for help with her dress. “Addie, would you tie my sash,” she said. “And we all just stood there,” says Sarah. “Looking at Addie as she began to tie the sash.”

In the next instant, the ladies lounge was filled with a deafening roar and a maelstrom of flying dust, dirt, bricks and glass. The massive building shook on its foundation, nearly every window blown from its frame. Somehow still standing, with arms outstretched and blinded by the blast, Sarah called out for her sister. “Addie! Addie! Addie!” But there was no answer.
Rescue workers surveying the remains of the church’s basement lounge.
Rescue workers survey the remains of the church’s basement lounge. The blast also blew out the windows of businesses and apartments across the street.
(Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Roy T. Carter, Birmingham News)
It took 39 years to bring three of the four murderers to justice. Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss was convicted in 1977. Two of his accomplices weren’t convicted until 2001 and 2002. All three died behind bars. A fourth suspect died in 1994, without being charged.

Home and Away

Seventy-one-year-old Sarah Collins Rudolph still lives in Birmingham, in a one-story brick house she shares with her husband, George. The white walls of their living room are covered from floor to ceiling with framed photographs, newspaper clippings, proclamations, citations and awards. Pictures of her sister Addie Mae, stuffed animals and candles share small tabletops with family photos. Larger pictures and awards are on the floor, propped up against the furniture and along the walls. “She’s got a lot of stuff,” says George, looking around the room.

Impeccably dressed in shades of turquoise and blue, Sarah has settled into a brown sofa at one end of the room. Sitting close, George provides a counterpoint in his grey Crimson Tide t-shirt and ever-present “Vietnam Veteran” ball cap. On this day in January, the tragedy of 1963 is once again on everyone’s mind in Birmingham. The last surviving parent of the four murdered girls will be buried tomorrow. George makes plans to drop off a condolence card to her family.
Sarah Collins Rudolph and George Rudolph.
George takes his role as Sarah’s protector seriously. “God spared her. And he didn’t spare her life for anyone to take advantage of her.”
Friends long ago in high school, the couple reconnected and married later in life, George having since assumed the role of Sarah’s chief protector. “I’m her rock,” he says. “I’m going to be right there with her.” Where she is outwardly calm when discussing her traumatic history, he tends to bristle at any mention of her failure to obtain help. “It’s just common sense that she deserves restitution,” says George. “What’s the difference between what she went through and 9/11?”

Sarah has struggled since childhood with the physical and emotional trauma suffered at the hands of the Klan bombers. Never has she received any help, financial or otherwise. “We didn’t have any counseling back then,” she says. Her childhood aspiration to be a nurse ended that day in church. More than 20 pieces of glass were removed from Sarah’s face, eyes and chest during her two-month hospital stay. There is still a shard of glass in her abdomen and another piece lodged in her one eye. Her doctor is afraid to remove it for fear of making her blind.

Having worked for years grinding pans in a foundry, she supports herself at age 71 as a domestic worker. “That’s not fair,” says George. “What happened to Sarah, other people did that to her. But she (ends up paying) for it.”

Most of the recognition Sarah gets comes from places far from home, as evidenced by the honors and awards covering her living room wall. George points to a stack of glossy photos of the two of them standing with President Biden in the Oval Office, a souvenir of a recent trip to Washington. “She’s been all over,” says George. “But Sarah has not got the recognition here in Birmingham that she really deserves. We’re sad that the city of Birmingham has not done enough for Sarah.”
Framed photographs, newspaper clippings and other mementos in Sarah Collins Rudolph’s living room.
Sarah’s living room is filled with mementos of her quest for remembrance and restitution.
Sidelined by COVID-19, Sarah and George are ready to hit the road again, drumming up support in her quest for restitution and filling any remaining space on their living room walls. They already have a few out-of-town speaking engagements lined up for the coming months.

It was on one of Sarah’s trips out of state that she met Tom Bolling, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, traveling with his daughter on a civil rights tour through the South. Captivated by Sarah’s story, he was compelled to offer help in her search for restitution, enlisting his firm, Jenner & Block, in the cause. Recently retired, Bolling maintains an interest in Sarah’s case, as law partner Ishan Bhabha and others at the firm have taken the lead on seeking restitution for Sarah, pro bono.

In a September 2020 letter to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Bhabha draws a direct line between former governor George Wallace and the church bombing. Sarah’s injuries “… were caused by criminals directly incited by state leaders to ‘take the offensive’ on white supremacy,” he wrote. “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 Rudolph hospitalized for months and scarred, both physically and mentally, to this day.”

Nine months before the bombing, in his inaugural address from the steps of the state capitol, Wallace famously declared his unequivocal support for “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever!” Just 10 days before the girls were murdered, the governor insisted that “What this country needs, is a few first-class funerals, and some political funerals, too.”
George Rudolph holding a black and white photograph of Sarah Collins Rudolph in her hospital bed after the 1963 bombing.
George holds a photo of Sarah in her hospital bed.
In unequivocal terms, Martin Luther King Jr. blamed Wallace’s inflammatory rhetoric for what had happened: “The blood of four little children … is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.”

In his letter to the governor, Ishan Bhabha states that Sarah’s story “presents an especially meritorious and unique opportunity for the State of Alabama to right the wrongs that its past leaders encouraged and incited.”

“He provoked all this,” Sarah Collins Rudolph says of George Wallace, who died in 1998. “He provoked [all of] the racism.”

A Good First Step

Gov. Ivey responded to Ishan Bhabha’s letter within days. “… Many would question whether the State can be held legally responsible for what happened at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church so long ago,” she wrote. “Having said that, there should be no question that the racist, segregationist rhetoric used by some of our leaders during the time was wrong. …”

Her letter goes on to say: “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. For that, they most certainly deserve a sincere, heartfelt apology — an apology that I extend today without hesitation or reservation.”
A statue of the four girls as a monument that was installed across from the church on the 50th anniversary of the bombing.
A monument to the four girls who perished was installed across from the church on the 50th anniversary of the bombing.
Bhabha describes the governor’s response as thoughtful, and a good first step. “But from our perspective, it was only a first step. Words are meaningful. Very meaningful. But they are not everything.” He and his associates at Jenner & Block continue to work without fee for Sarah. Nearly a year and a half after Gov. Ivey’s apology, no one is yet willing to describe the state of negotiations, or even if there are any.

“It’s easy to kind of make her into this gauzy civil rights hero who you feel sorry for, and are inspired by, as opposed to somebody who has bills to pay,” says Bhabha.

“Sarah is being remembered in various ways because I think we’re revisiting the pain, the terrible pain of the past as a country,” says attorney Tom Bolling. “I think it’s tough for governments because of what restitution would really mean. It’s a very, very important public policy issue about doing justice and not forgetting. I suspect that forgetting is the easiest thing to do. But it’s not the right thing to do.”
David Kidd is a photojournalist and storyteller for Governing. He can be reached at
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