Birmingham’s ‘Fifth Girl’

Sarah Collins Rudolph, who survived the 1963 church bombing that killed her sister and three other girls, wants restitution and an apology for what she’s suffered
With a photo of her as a 12-year-old in a hospital room on a screen behind her, Sarah Collins Rudolph, left, describes the 1963 bombing at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church to Ebony Phillips at an event sponsored by the Greater Atlanta Black Prosecutors Association. (Michael A. Schwarz for the Washington Post)

The small, brown woman in a sequined black dress and suede high heels mounted the stairs to the megachurch’s curved stage, leaning on the arm of her husband. The silver cross around her neck glinted in the spotlight as Sarah Collins Rudolph took her seat in an armchair on a February evening.

The auditorium at Peace Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., grew quiet. Hundreds of faces, almost all African American, tilted up expectantly.

“Let’s go to the very beginning of the day,” said the interviewer with the Greater Atlanta Black Prosecutors Association, who was seated in an armchair facing Rudolph.

And so Rudolph began rewinding her life to the hours just before the bombing by white supremacists that literally stopped the clock at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963.

To before her sister, 14-year-old Addie Mae, and three other black girls died in the explosion, shaming the nation and leading to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To before 26 shards of glass pierced Rudolph’s slight, 12-year-old body, destroying the vision in her right eye and her dreams of becoming a nurse. To before it occurred to Rudolph that Alabama might owe her restitution and an apology for its role in her suffering. To before this gentle, indomitable woman became known as the “Fifth Girl,” a survivor of a notorious American hate crime who few knew existed until, at 49, she began to share her story.

Now, in a soft Southern accent from the stage, Rudolph recounted the hours before the clock froze on Sept. 15 at 10:22 a.m., 56 years ago.

Sarah Collins Rudolph and her husband, George Rudolph, walk into Peace Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., for her to speak about her experience in the 1963 church bombing. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
April Heard grows emotional listening to Rudolph describe what she lost as a 12-year-old in Birmingham. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
Hundreds of African Americans attended the Black History Month event. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
TOP: Sarah Collins Rudolph and her husband, George Rudolph, walk into Peace Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., for her to speak about her experience in the 1963 church bombing. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: April Heard grows emotional listening to Rudolph describe what she lost as a 12-year-old in Birmingham. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Hundreds of African Americans attended the Black History Month event. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)

‘Still standing’

Rudolph and her sisters had arisen before dawn so their mother could press each girl’s hair for church and feed them all breakfast. The oldest of them, Junie, took the bus to 16th Street Baptist Church early to prepare to play the piano and reminded Sarah, Addie Mae and their sister Janie to be on time for the annual Youth Day service.

Janie had a new black purse, shaped like a small football with a zipper, and the three girls tossed it back and forth, giggling as they walked the mile or so from home to the stately brick house of worship at the corner of 16th Street and Sixth Avenue in downtown Birmingham.

From left: Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Dianne Wesley, 14, were killed when a bomb exploded at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church (AP)

Earlier that year, the church had become a staging ground for a campaign to desegregate the city led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and local minister Fred Shuttlesworth.

In May, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor had directed his forces to sic dogs on the young demonstrators and blast them with fire hoses during the Children’s Crusade near Kelly Ingram Park. Thousands of protesters had been arrested by summer, including King, who famously penned his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Gov. George Wallace, resisting federal demands to desegregate, declared that “what this country needs is a few first-class funerals.” But the city had already begun bowing to the pressure, integrating the first few schools in early September.

The crater left by the Klan bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. (AP)

By the time the Collins children arrived for church a couple weeks later, Sunday school had already started. The sisters ventured to the women’s lounge in the basement, and then Janie headed to her class upstairs while Sarah and Addie Mae waited in the lounge until their lesson let out. Soon, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson joined them in the lounge. Addie and the other girls had gathered near the lounge’s large windows, sharing news of the first days of school, Sarah behind them at the wash basin, when Denise asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. Beneath the stairs just outside the windows, more than a dozen sticks of dynamite lay bundled, a timer ticking down.

Addie Mae’s arms were reaching out in midair toward Denise when the explosion happened, Rudolph said.

The church deacon who rescued her later told her that he had jumped down into the bombed void in the basement before peering through the falling dust into the lounge, now a jumble of brick and concrete and glass.

“When he looked in there, he seen me standing, just bleeding,” Rudolph recalled from the stage.

“You were still standing?” her interviewer asked.

“Yes, I was still standing,” Rudolph said quietly.

Someone gasped, and someone else murmured “Amen” before the audience began to clap loudly, then louder still.

‘Like we was germs’

Sarah’s husband, George Rudolph, made a sweeping gesture with his hand across the living room of the couple’s two-bedroom brick ranch house in the Birmingham suburb of Forestdale.

“This — this — I call the civil rights museum,” he declared, a large man with a graying mustache in faded blue overalls and a black Vietnam Veterans ball cap.

Sarah sat primly in the corner of a brown love seat as her husband spoke, quiet and reserved in a tailored plum-colored dress and matching jacket.

Nestled in a square box lined with black velvet on the low wood-and-glass coffee table sat a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal. Nearby on the floor was an original paper program from her sister’s funeral, protected by a Plexiglass sleeve that was sent to her by a woman in Michigan who had learned Sarah had not been able to attend the service or hear the eulogy that King delivered.

The room’s white walls were crowded with gilt frames bearing gold-sealed proclamations, from Philadelphia, San Diego and Boston, and glossy photographs of Sarah with John Lewis and Jesse Jackson. A prized pencil drawing dominated the long wall across from the living room windows, a gift from Sarah’s niece. In it, Denise, Cynthia and Carole stood clapping behind Sarah and Addie Mae, Addie clutching Sarah’s waist, as though all four girls were overjoyed that Sarah had made it out alive.

Rudolph at her home in Forestdale, Ala., with a photo of her sister Addie Mae and a copy of the program from her funeral in the foreground. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
Rudolph's husband, George, calls their living room “the civil rights museum.” (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
Plaques, photos and other mementos cover the walls of the Rudolph home in a suburb of Birmingham. (Michael A. Schwarz/for The Washington Post)
TOP: Rudolph at her home in Forestdale, Ala., with a photo of her sister Addie Mae and a copy of the program from her funeral in the foreground. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Rudolph's husband, George, calls their living room “the civil rights museum.” (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Plaques, photos and other mementos cover the walls of the Rudolph home in a suburb of Birmingham. (Michael A. Schwarz/for The Washington Post)

Amid the glory, a jarring image on poster board leaned against the base of a marble-topped wood credenza. The photograph was published in Life magazine on Sept. 27, 1963, when time had begun moving forward again. In it, a 12-year-old Sarah sat propped up in a hospital bed, her eyes covered with large, white patches of gauze. Her lips appeared swollen, her hair in need of a mother’s care. For a fleeting moment, the photograph made her famous and helped the nation find its humanity, even though it would take 39 years to bring all three murderers to justice. Then the spotlight moved on, leaving Sarah to stumble her way, in relative anonymity without help, for decades.

Last year, a then-partner at the D.C. office of the law firm Jenner & Block saw Sarah speak in South Carolina. Hate crimes had been surging across the country, including the 2015 attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church right there in Charleston, where nine worshipers perished in a basement Bible study class. Among the three people who survived Dylan Roof’s racist rampage: an 11-year-old girl.

Captivated by Sarah’s story of the trauma she endured for decades, Tom Bolling persuaded his firm to help her pro bono.

“Its hard to think of a more compelling story,” said Ishan K. Bhabha, a partner and the lead attorney in the effort. “... Sarah is a civil rights hero who suffered a grievous wrong,” one that “can’t be looked at in isolation.”

The firm met in December with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who prosecuted two of the murderers, to seek his advice. The plan, “still in the strategic phase,” could include an apology, which the firm has drafted, and restitution without a lawsuit, Bhabha said. He’d like the state legislature to allocate money to compensate Sarah for her physical and emotional injuries.

After two months in the hospital and surgery to install her first prosthetic eye in the fall of 1963, Sarah went from being an A student to barely passing her classes. She wept daily over her injuries and the loss of Addie Mae, who had been closest to her in age, an artistic girl who was the outgoing foil to her quiet little sister.

The two girls used to walk merrily from door to door in Birmingham’s white neighborhoods, selling the aprons and potholders their mother, a housekeeper, had expertly stitched to make ends meet. Sarah knew how degrading segregation was, saw the way her mother had to make paper imprints of their feet because the white department store wouldn’t let her children try on the shoes. “They looked at us like we was germs,” Sarah remembered. But sometimes the homeowners who bought their aprons offered the sisters fresh-baked cookies and other treats, and back then she didn’t dwell much on the rest of it.

Rudolph attends church at Perfecting the Saints' Ministries in Birmingham, which helped save her. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)

After the bombing, she found herself wondering about the friendly-seeming white people behind those doors, and a new thought dawned: The white Klansmen who did this hated her just because she was black. Maybe they had smiled at her, too, before donning their hoods. She went from dreaming of a career as a practical nurse to working in Birmingham’s factories, grinding skillets, drilling aluminum. She began to hate back, glaring at her supervisors and white strangers in the streets. Once, in her 20s, she thought about shooting a man who had called her “nigger” in the park, before getting a hold of herself.

Her mother and father, a restaurant bus boy, had taught her to work hard, and Sarah had never expected a man to take care of her. But it seemed as she grew older that men thought they could treat her any way they wanted now that she was half blind with a face still pocked with scars. Her first husband, a tree trimmer for the city, beat her; the second, a mechanic, put down the bottle for the first few years only to pick it up again. She took $2,000 she received when a woman she kept house for died and used it to get a divorce.

By the time she left her second husband, the vise of hatred and fear gripping her had begun to loosen.

In her mid-40s, she started attending a Pentecostal church in Birmingham called the Lighthouse. One day at a tent meeting revival, the preacher pulled Sarah aside and said he’d had a vision of her standing in a haze of smoke and dust. A beam should have fallen on her, he told her, but God had suspended time and sent his angels to catch the beam. On a Sunday soon after, the preacher called Sarah to the altar. She was paralyzed by fear and suffered from “a nervous condition,” he told her. Then he laid his hands softly on her head and prayed, and she crumpled to the floor.

“That’s how I knew God was operating on me,” Sarah was saying now.

George looked at his wife across the living room, dim with the setting sun.

“I always tell Sarah,” he said, “that she survived because God was saving her for me.”

Sarah and George Rudolph play with their grandson Zion, 8 months. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)

‘No justice’

In her bedroom the next morning, Sarah slid her feet into steep, black pumps to match her beige-and-black chevron-striped dress and jacket. Then she paused to pick up her purse from the kitchen table with its American flag centerpiece before heading out to pick up her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

She whizzed nimbly down the back streets of Birmingham in her 2006 gold Kia Optima, driving 50 mph in a 30 mph zone, never mind the blind eye. She stopped briefly to crowd everybody into the car before pulling up to Perfecting the Saints’ Ministries church, with three minutes to spare before the 11:30 service.

Sarah climbed the towering red steps to the church, a decaying block of brick and painted concrete on a lonely street corner. Once inside, she took her station as an usher near the wooden door leading to the small sanctuary, softly greeting the dozen or so members who meandered in. The pastor’s wife, wearing a black dress and a large-brimmed, black hat festooned with feathers, stood in front of the short rows of pews belting out “Amazing Grace.” Every now and then through the service, Sarah clapped to the gospel music or slowly waved her hands in the air as people rose to testify, murmuring “Amen.”

Sarah Rudolph would like to help rebuild Perfecting the Saints' Ministries if she is successful in her quest for restitution. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)

George would like them to get a bigger house with a special room just for their museum, if the restitution ever comes. But Sarah has other plans. She wants to help replace this aging church edifice, with its flooding basement and peeling walls and buckling red carpet.

It was George who helped her believe she deserved something in return for her suffering. When they were students together at A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham, he’d take notice of her while others looked past. “Sarah Collins! Sarah Collins!” he would greet her. That’s what he called out some 30 years later when he glimpsed her leaving the post office as he stood in line to buy stamps and darted out after her.

They married when she was 50 and he was 49, bonding over their shared traumas. George, a former city parks employee who receives veterans disability pay, saw too much as a soldier in Vietnam. They suffered PTSD together at the sound of a thunderclap. She had been drinking to numb herself but stopped after she got saved. He dried himself out when his new wife demanded it. She helped him raise the son he’d had with an old girlfriend.

No one gets to Sarah without getting past George. “I am her protector,” he likes to say.

George fixes Sarah's hair as she waits to speak near Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)

He supported his wife through her testimony in May 2002 against Bobby Frank Cherry, the last of three Klansmen to be convicted in the girls’ murders. Robert Chambliss, convicted in 1977, died in prison in 1985, as Cherry would in 2004. Thomas Blanton was convicted in 2001 and is still serving his life sentence. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged.

After the bombing, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had said the chances of conviction were “remote,” and blocked his agents from meeting with state and federal prosecutors to share their findings. The city managed to convict Chambliss, known locally as “Dynamite Bob,” in McNair’s death before charges were finally brought against Blanton and Cherry, relying in part on testimony from their relatives. Sarah seethed when Cherry’s lawyers attempted to prove he was incompetent to stand trial.

Klansman Robert E. Chambliss, known in Birmingham as “Dynamite Bob,” at a court hearing on Oct. 1, 1963. He was convicted of the murder of Denise McNair in 1977. (Horace Cort/AP)

During the trial in the Birmingham courthouse, Jones displayed the Life magazine photo of Sarah in the hospital bed, and the barely recognizable remains of the other girls. Eventually, Jones called Sarah to the stand.

Sarah told the jury how she had been standing near the sink when she heard a horrific noise and felt glass pierce her eyes.

“I began to call Addie. I said ‘Addie, Addie, Addie,’ ” she said, according to news accounts of the trial.

“Did your sister ever answer?” Jones asked.

“No sir, she didn’t.”

Later when the verdict was read, she did not jump or weep — that is not her way. But deep inside, she said, she felt something finally begin to settle.

Thomas Blanton, left, and Bobby Frank Cherry appear in court on May 19, 2000, in Birmingham after being accused of the 1963 church bombing. (Charles Nesbitt/Birmingham News/AP)

Until she married George, Sarah had been sharing her story mostly in church, but George started a Facebook page for her, and soon the requests started trickling in. They’ve picked up over the past few years as interest in African American history has grown, peaking around King’s January birthday and into Black History Month.

“Let’s see, we been to San Angelo, Texas; Chicago and Arkansas. Then to Cleveland and California,” George said from a booth in Buffalo Wild Wings after church, black Vietnam ball cap back on his head.

“We done been to five different states,” he said, although sometimes it seems Sarah’s story is more valued elsewhere than here.

Here: Alabama.

But the Rudolphs don’t want to talk too much about that. You never know who could be listening. Maybe even the Klan, Sarah said.

They still have to live here, in a city where Sarah believes so many people have gotten the facts wrong — lauding the 16th Street pastor at the time for rescuing her, instead of deacon Samuel Rutledge, who had carried her out of the dust; reporting that she’d been wandering around in the rubble when she’d been frozen still, unable to see. They’d misspelled Addie’s middle name as “May” on the low granite monument to the murdered girls outside the church; misrepresented her sister, Sarah feels, in “The Four Spirits” sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park. A bronzed Addie Mae bends barefoot to tie Denise McNair’s sash, her glasses by her knee and her Mary Janes filling with rain on the ground, which really disturbs Sarah because that’s not the way it was at all, and nobody even bothered to ask her, the only living witness in the ladies lounge.

The Four Spirits statue in Kelly Ingram Park across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
Sarah objects to the way her sister is depicted at the memorial in Kelly Ingram Park. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
Addie Mae's bronzed Mary Janes. Sarah is sad to see them fill with water when it rains. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
TOP: The Four Spirits statue in Kelly Ingram Park across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post) BOTTOM LEFT: Sarah objects to the way her sister is depicted at the memorial in Kelly Ingram Park. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post) BOTTOM RIGHT: Addie Mae's bronzed Mary Janes. Sarah is sad to see them fill with water when it rains. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)

And then the outsiders, using Sarah’s story to help burnish their careers, under the guise, she believes, of telling history. Spike Lee calling to interview her for his 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary, “4 Little Girls,” but declining her request for payment, telling her the proceeds would go toward scholarships. (“I have never paid for an interview — ever,” Lee later responded in an interview with The Washington Post.)

Sometimes it seemed, too, that folks just wanted to make themselves feel like good people without ever truly confronting the state-sponsored hatred at the root of the crime and the unending harm it caused. She wasn’t going to make it easy. That’s why she declined President Barack Obama’s invitation to attend the 2013 Oval Office signing ceremony to honor the four murdered girls on the 50th anniversary of the bombing.

It would take restitution and an apology to make things right, not one or the other but both.

From his seat in the booth, George was now listing the grievances: No one was ever charged with attempted murder for Sarah’s injuries; no one tried to make Sarah or her family, or the other families, whole, like they did with all those victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Forget how long ago it was, George was saying. Alabama “could do something special for her if they wanted to.”

“Sarah didn’t get no justice,” he continued, voice rising above the din of the restaurant. “My baby didn’t get no justice.”

‘Before the Klan comes’

Sarah backed down her driveway just as dawn broke the next day to make the 25-minute drive to the mostly white suburb of Hoover. George would prefer she quit this job cleaning house for a white lady, but Sarah has worked all her life, refusing to apply for disability, and she’s not about to sit home now.

She parked at a McDonald’s to grab a “senior coffee” and, back at her car, leaned over the hood to inspect her wiper blades. She shook her head with worry; the forecast called for flooding.

She turned down a street of sprawling brick homes with large arched windows and fancy porticoes, then pulled into a wide driveway and entered her employer’s house through the kitchen door.

Inside, Leah Atkins, in black slacks and sweater, her gray hair pulled back from her wide face in a long ponytail, smiled warmly.

Atkins, an 84-year-old Birmingham native and a retired history professor, said she considers Sarah “one of my best and dearest friends.” It’s more than Southern flattery, she began to explain as she took a seat in a green love seat in the adjacent family room. The fireplace was trimmed in wide bands of burnished wood; a large Jacuzzi with gold faucets was visible through the door to the sun porch. The scrape of a broom could be heard as Sarah swept the kitchen.

Atkins grew up in relative comfort with kind parents, she said, who allowed her to play hopscotch with the black children who lived on the other side of their street and carry them around in her red wagon. Ever since, she has greeted African Americans with “sir” and “ma’am,” just as she does white people. She remembered feeling bad when she’d see the lines of black people snaking outside the Alabama Theatre on Third Avenue, knowing everybody wasn’t going to fit into the balcony inside. But that’s just the way things were. She was not one to protest herself, she said, even after she heard the news while living in Auburn of those poor girls murdered in a church bombing in her hometown.

These days, she listens as her children speak favorably of President Trump, letting them know she disagrees but preferring to keep the family peace. She’d “felt like a failure,” she said, because her children didn’t support Hillary Clinton.

Still, Atkins has a healthy respect for the nonlinear quality of history, and she’s grateful, she said, that she has Sarah to talk to, because she knows her housekeeper shares her unsettling sense of time rolling backward.

She paused abruptly.

“I better watch what I say before the Klan comes and burns a cross on my front yard,” she said, for what wouldn’t be the last time.

Sarah serves as “an example” to her, she continued, believing her housekeeper’s public testimony to the bombing in 1963 could do more than she ever could to combat racism.

“Sarah!” she called out.

Sarah appeared in the doorway in her white pants and shirt, holding a broom.

“Yes, ma’am,” she said.

Atkins eyes lit up.

“Remember that time you went to speak at Auburn,” she said. “Well, that professor called me up and he said, ‘Well, you told me she was good, but you didn’t tell me she was this good.’ ”

“I’m very proud of her. I’m sort of like a momma about her, you know.”

Sarah smiled quietly at her employer, then told her she needed to leave early to beat the rain.

People take photos of Sarah Collins Rudolph after hearing her speak outside Atlanta in February. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)

A swarm of admirers

Two days later, in the vast auditorium of the Decatur megachurch, Sarah wrapped up her testimony from her armchair on the curving stage. The audience leaped to its feet for an ovation.

As Sarah descended the stairs, about a dozen people swarmed around her, iPhones flashing before receding like a tide, allowing another group of admirers to take their place. She held herself erect through it all, offering a shy, practiced smile, as George, in his black suit and black-and-white polka-dot bow tie, moved boisterously about nearby.

Minutes passed, 15, 20, 30. Soon, Sarah would be escorted back to the pastor’s book-lined office to wait for someone to drive her and George back to the Hampton Inn. There, she would take off her heels and rest her feet. She was tired from standing so long.

Read more Retropolis:

Martin Luther King Jr. met Malcolm X just once. The photo still haunts us with what was lost.

The Alabama Senate race that conjured memories of a deadly church bombing

Martin Luther King Jr.’s scorn for ‘white moderates’ in his Birmingham jail letter

Recy Taylor’s brutal rape: The Alabama NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate

Comment ballons

Comments are not available on this story.

Share your feedback by emailing the author. Have a question about our comment policies? Review our guidelines or contact the commenting team here.

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us