The Common Good
May 2011

From Mourning to Gladness

by Carolyn McKinstry | May 2011

The KKK bomb that killed four girls did not have the last word. An eyewitness account.

On Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded near the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls and injuring more than 22 other children gathered that morning for Sunday school. The four victims -- Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14 -- were friends of Carolyn McKinstry, who was also 14 years old and walking through the sanctuary of the church when the bomb exploded.

From Mourning to Gladness
From Mourning to Gladness

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My parents joined 16th Street Baptist Church when I was 2 years old. It was an exciting place to be. There were always many activities going on for young people, and anybody who was anybody came through our church. I loved coming to church.

Because of the segregation in Birmingham, and because I lived in a very strict household, the church was the one place I could always get permission to come. My parents would say no to so many other places, but they would always say yes to church.

Outside the church was a dark and difficult city. Every aspect of my life growing up in Birmingham was segregated. I was introduced to segregation at a very young age, when my grandfather brought my grandmother to Birmingham. She was very sick, and he had her lying in the back seat of the car. Hospitals in Birmingham did not accept black patients, so we took my grandmother to the Princeton hospital and she was placed in the basement. I sat in the basement of the hospital with my grandmother for two weeks and watched her die. I always wondered why we were in the basement. My grandparents had the funds to pay; he was a country preacher and they were both educators. But they were black.

My second introduction to segregation came just one year later, when I had the privilege of winning the statewide spelling competition. I was our state champion speller, but blacks could not be part of the national competition.

So I spent a lot of my time at 16th Street Baptist Church, and at the age of 12, I became the secretary of our Sunday school. I happened to be here when the mass movements [for civil rights] started. I was at the church when the very first meeting was held, and I heard singing taking place outside. They were singing songs like, "Ain't Goin' to Let Nobody Turn Me Around," and "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom." I just knew that I needed to be part of what was going on.

At this time, bombing was a way of life in Birmingham. It was something that we learned about at an early age. On any given day, we would hear the sound of a bomb and we would wait reverently for the phone call that we knew would come. When that phone rang, we knew what the person on the other end would say. Bombings of black churches, black homes, and black businesses were frequent. Terrorism did not start on 9/11 for us; it started long before.

On Sept. 15, I arrived at the church around 9:30 a.m. and met with our church clerk, Mrs. Shorter. As the Sunday school secretary, I would take the attendance and financial reports and pass them out. Mrs. Shorter spoke to me about phone calls -- annoying phone calls -- that we had received that morning. Not really paying much attention to what she said, I gathered my materials and went downstairs.

Downstairs, I saw my friends in the bathroom. I noticed Denise first. Denise was the youngest, and she was smiling very playfully. And then I noticed Addie, a very quiet person. I saw Carole primping and combing her hair. Carole was someone who was very bright; she had earned a tremendous number of Girl Scout badges -- more than I knew ever existed. And then I saw Cynthia, who was my best friend. Cynthia's father was the principal at my elementary school and cheered me on through the spelling competition. Cynthia was very petite; her mother made all of her clothes because she was so tiny. She always looked so well-dressed and so beautiful.

I passed my friends, dropped off my papers, and started back up the stairs. As I reached the top of the stairs, the phone in the office was ringing, so I answered it. A male caller said, "Three minutes," and hung up. I remembered what Mrs. Shorter had said about annoying phone calls, but annoying phone calls were not something that I would have been aware of as a 14-year-old. I hung up the phone and took approximately 15 steps into the sanctuary. I was standing right in the aisle when the bomb exploded.

I heard someone shout, "Hit the floor!" and it was really quiet for a moment. I heard screams, and then it was very quiet. Then I heard feet. I could tell that people were getting up and running out of the church, so I also got up and ran.

It would be a long time before I understood the blood price that was paid by my friends in the quest for freedom.

Six months after the bombing of the church, another bomb exploded across the street from my house. My mother, who is 89, lives in that house today. That bomb destroyed much of our house and much of the other houses on the street there. Those were such frightening experiences. During that time, there was a burden placed on my heart that never left. It could not be relieved; it would not go away. It was a burden to try and figure out -- to try and understand why the color of skin was so important.

After the second bombing, it was as though I was marked. The next 20 years or so were very difficult for me. Many of us went off to school or to work. Some of our friends did not fare as well. They did not finish high school. They were not able to go to work. They were also, in many ways, casualties of the civil rights movement -- those who were not able to make their way out of the confusion that existed in that time.

But one day, I answered a call from God to go back out into the world and to try to make a difference in the area of reconciliation and forgiveness. So I have spent the better part of my last 30 years traveling as an ambassador of goodwill, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

I believe that all humans share a lot of common ground. I believe, like Gandhi, that all people are brothers and sisters, and that if we would lead, we must first serve. I believe, like Dr. King, that we must choose community over chaos if we are to be a world house where all are welcome, where all can enter, and all can become everything that they have been created to be.

I also believe, like Isaiah, in reconciliation, and I believe that one day the lamb will lie with the lion, and neither will do harm, and both will be filled with the goodness of God.

God allowed me to live on Sept. 15 that I might serve as a living witness to God’s power -- not only to the power of God’s glory, but to the power that God has for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Carolyn McKinstry, author of While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement, gave this address during The Faith and Politics Institute’s 2010 Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

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