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The surviving ‘fifth girl’ of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing asks Alabama’s governor for restitution

Sep 17, 2020, 8:48 AM
survivor church bombing...
Sarah Collins Rudolph, the lone survivor of a 1963 church bombing, and Fate Morris, whose sister died in the blast, discuss their desire for compensation from the bombing during an interview in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. Rudolph was badly injured in the bombing, which killed sister Addie Mae Collins, and Morris said he is still haunted by memories of digging through the church rubble. The two say they will turn down a proposed Congressional Gold Medal honoring the victims. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves) Sarah Collins Rudolph, the lone survivor of a 1963 church bombing, and Fate Morris, whose sister died in the blast, discuss their desire for compensation from the bombing during an interview in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. Rudolph was badly injured in the bombing, which killed sister Addie Mae Collins, and Morris said he is still haunted by memories of digging through the church rubble. The two say they will turn down a proposed Congressional Gold Medal honoring the victims. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves) Jay Reeves Sarah Collins Rudolph, Fate Morris AP
(AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CNN) — Sarah Collins Rudolph lost an eye and her sister was killed when Ku Klux Klan members bombed 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Since that day, she’s felt forgotten by officials who never offered her payment or support, let alone their condolences.

Collins Rudolph’s lawyers are now pressing Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to offer her restitution for the losses she suffered and the burdens of the bombing she’s carried with her throughout her life.

The bombing in Birmingham, which killed four Black girls ages 11 to 14, lent new urgency to the civil rights movement. Less than a year after the bombing, President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination based on race and segregated facilities, among other racist practices.

But Collins Rudolph said she was never offered payment for her experience, nor medical care or an official apology. Now that the country is again confronting anti-Black racism and the systems that perpetuate it, Rudolph’s lawyers say, the timing is right.

“Given recent events,” her lawyers wrote in a letter to Ivey, “now is the time for Ms. Collins Rudolph to receive long overdue justice.”

Ivey’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, told CNN the governor’s office has received the letter and is reviewing it.

She was the only girl who survived the 1963 bombing

Collins Rudolph was seriously injured in the blast that killed her sister, Addie Mae Collins, along with Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — all 14 years old — and Denise McNair, who was 11.

The five girls were in the church basement restroom on a Sunday morning when the bomb, planted by local Klan members, exploded.

Collins, Robertson, Wesley and McNair were referred to as Birmingham’s “four little girls.” Collins Rudolph is the fifth — the one who survived.

Rudolph, who was 12 at the time, told CNN in 2013 — the 50th anniversary of the bombing — that glass from the blast flew into her eye, face and chest, blinding her in one eye. She stayed in a hospital for two months after her older sister had died.

Rudolph Collins told CNN then that she felt overlooked — by her family who mourned her sister, by strangers who were taken aback by the scars the glass shards had left on her face and chest and, years later, by state and federal officials who had never offered her restitution.

“I was feeling like I was dead on the inside because of how I was treated,” she said.

Victims’ families and survivors of large-scale acts of terrorism like the September 11 attacks or the Boston Marathon bombing have received compensation, but victims and descendants of victims of historic acts of racial violence, including the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, haven’t been offered the same.

Three Klansmen were ultimately convicted of the bombing (though two of them were not prosecuted until the 2000s). Upon the death of the surviving bomber in June, Ivey said the “dark day … will never be forgotten in both Alabama’s history and that of our nation.”

“Although his passing will never fully take away the pain or restore the loss of life, I pray on behalf of the loved ones of all involved that our entire state can continue taking steps forward to create a better Alabama for future generations,” she said in a statement.

The state wasn’t responsible for planting the bomb, Collins Rudolph’s lawyers wrote, but they perpetuated racism within the city that emboldened the men who bombed the church. For those and more reasons, they wrote, Collins Rudolph deserves restitution.

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The surviving ‘fifth girl’ of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing asks Alabama’s governor for restitution