“Ms. Collins Rudolph simply wanted to do what so many other little girls across Alabama were doing — attend a church service,” reads the letter from Rudolph’s attorneys, who are working pro bono, to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R). “But instead of gaining the solace and celebration of prayer, the church was bombed by those affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and our client lost her sister, her right eye, her childhood, and in ways she could never know then as a 12-year old girl, a lifetime’s worth of opportunities and dreams.”
The letter singled out the state for encouraging the bombing. “While the State of Alabama did not place the bomb next to the church, its Governor and other leaders at the time played an undisputed role in encouraging its citizens to engage in racial violence,” the letter read.
The 16th Street Baptist Church had become a staging ground in early 1963 for a campaign to desegregate the city led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and local minister Fred Shuttlesworth. That May, Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor had directed his forces to sic dogs on the young civil rights 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 (D), resisting federal demands to desegregate, declared that “what this country needs is a few first-class funerals.” But by early September the city had already begun integrating the first few schools.
The letter to Ivey requests an unspecified amount in compensation and includes a sample draft of an official apology for consideration by the Alabama state legislature.
“Given what Sarah has suffered — losing an eye … and more broadly the fundamentally different path that this horrendous act put her life on, how do you compensate for that?” said Ishan Bhabha, a partner at Jenner & Block, and part of the legal team on Rudolph’s case. “What is a lifetime of missed opportunities worth?”
Bhabha said his firm is optimistic that Alabama will act, because of the indisputable facts of the case and the timing of the request. “It’s not the kind of thing that should engender disagreement or debate,” he said. “Sarah is an extremely worthy person who has suffered something extraordinary and horrendous and she has been courageous throughout her life.”
“More than ever, this is a time when there has been a national reckoning about the issue of racial justice,” Bhabha said. “The impetus for righting both current and historical wrongs has become more urgent, so that’s one thing. This is a major part of the national discussion now.”
Ivey‘s press secretary, Gina Maiola, said in an email on Wednesday that Ivey received the letter and her office is reviewing it. She declined further comment.
On the day of the bombing, Rudolph and her sisters had arisen before dawn so their mother could fix their hair and feed them all breakfast. The oldest of them, Junie, took the bus to 16th Street Baptist Church early 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, and the three girls playfully tossed it back and forth as they walked the mile or so from home to the imposing brick church at the corner of 16th Street and Sixth Avenue in downtown Birmingham.
By the time the Collins children arrived, Sunday school had already started. Sarah and Addie Mae went to the women’s lounge until their lesson let out. Soon, McNair, Wesley and Robertson joined them in the lounge. Addie Mae and the other girls had gathered near the lounge’s large windows, sharing news about the first days of school. Sarah stood behind them at the wash basin.
Addie Mae’s arms were reaching out in midair to tie the sash on McNair’s dress when the dynamite, hidden beneath an exterior staircase outside the bathroom window, exploded.
A church deacon jumped down into the bombed void and rescued Sarah, who was standing amid the falling dust and destruction. She had called out for her sister, but there had been no answer.
A photo of Rudolph, propped up in a hospital bed, her eyes covered with gauze patches, appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of Life magazine and made her temporarily famous. The bombing was one of several catalysts, including the March on Washington that August, that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But then the spotlight faded, and Rudolph was left to deal with the aftermath. Her grades plummeted, and she eventually gave up her dream of becoming a practical nurse. She spent her life working in Birmingham’s factories grinding skillets and drilling aluminum. In an interview with The Washington Post in February, Rudolph said she became too fearful to continue worshiping at the 16th Street Baptist Church and lived in a kind of emotional paralysis until a spiritual experience with a Pentecostal pastor released her.
It took 39 years to bring three of the murderers to justice. Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted in the girls’ murders in 2002. Robert Chambliss, convicted in 1977, died in prison in 1985, as Cherry would in 2004. Thomas Blanton Jr. was convicted in 2001 and died in June while serving his life sentence. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without being charged.
Rudolph married her husband, George, a former city parks worker and Vietnam veteran, at the age of 50, and he encouraged her to seek an apology and restitution. This is her first formal request.
Last year, a then-partner at the D.C. office of Jenner & Block saw Sarah speak in South Carolina. Captivated by her story of the trauma she endured for decades, Tom Bolling persuaded his firm to help her pro bono. The firm met in December with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who prosecuted two of the murderers, to seek his advice.
Rudolph released a statement late Wednesday. “That day changed the course of my life forever. It is hard to put into words the pain I’ve had to deal with, both physical and emotional, because of the acts of violent hatred and bigotry on that day,” she wrote. “They wanted to hurt me or kill me because I’m black. They bombed a church because it was a black church. They murdered my sister and her friends because they were black. It has taken decades to even begin to come to terms with this trauma. To have my suffering acknowledged and to receive an apology for what happened to me would help bring a sense of closure. I truly hope Governor Ivey will do the right thing.”
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