57 YEARS LATER, THE ‘FIFTH LITTLE GIRL’ REFLECTS ON 16TH STREET CHURCH BOMBING

The Fifth Little Girl Gfx

By WVUA 23 Reporter Khadijah Torbert

Birmingham, known as the Iron City, is also a place grappling with a painful past.

A church bombing in 1963 claimed the lives of four young girls. But a the fifth little girl often slips through the cracks of history as she spent her life coming to terms with the fallout from the attack.

“All of a sudden, I heard a sound, boom, and I heard someone holler, ‘Someone bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church,” Sarah Collins-Rudolph said. Collins-Rudolph was inside the church when the bombs detonated.

In September 1963, 15 sticks of dynamite were planted by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the basement of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham during Sunday morning services, underneath the girls’ restroom. That bomb killed four young girls: Carol Denise McNair,11, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Addie Mae Collins, 14.

“I called out for my sister, ‘Addie! Addie! Addie!’ But she didn’t answer,” Collins-Rudolph said. “I didn’t know what had happened.”

Immediately after the blast, church members started to dig in the rubble to search for survivors. And there was a survivor: Collins-Rudolph, known around the world as “the fifth little girl.”

“It was God that brought me through this, He let me live to tell the story,” she said of that day. “I just thank Him, I give Him all the praise and all the glory for sparing my life.”

At just 12 years old, a time where most young girls are playing outside or with dolls, Collins-Rudolph was hospitalized for months after being hit with shards of glass that went into her eye.

“I had to go back and get my right eye removed and I had to get adjusted to seeing out of just one eye,” she said. “I was nervous and I was so fearful and loud noises had me jumpy all the time.”

Collins-Rudolph said after the incident she was surprised no one really discussed the bombing, and was told to forget about it. It was as if that major event never took place, leaving her to cope with the tragedy for years the best she could.

“You know, I began to drink and smoke,” Collins-Rudolph said. “It wasn’t until I came to God that He changed my life and now I can go out and talk about it.”

And 57 years later, 16th Street Baptist Church still stands, despite the tragic incident that took place Sept. 15, 1963 that changed the nation forever. Although four little girls perished that day, the sole survivor explained how she replaced that bitterness and that hatred with love and understanding.

“I just had to forgive [the bombers]because oftentimes unforgiveness gets into you and starts making you sick and I didn’t want to start getting sick simply because I was holding that on the inside of me,” Collins-Rudolph said.

The Klansmen who killed those four little girls and emotionally and physically scarred Collins-Rudolph for life went free for 39 years. Collins-Rudolph said only restitution can bring closure now.

“We haven’t received anything from the state the city; no one has given us restitution,” she said.

Collins-Rudolph remembers every detail of Sept. 15, 1963, a painful memory forever ingrained in history that she says she’ll keep telling for all to hear.

“When you’re young and somebody do something as bad as that, it just puts you in history,” she said. “So it’s something that I’m in and I like talking about that day because I don’t want those girls’ deaths to be in vain. Young people today, they think things have been like this all the time, but people died and suffered for us to get our freedom and the Civil Rights Bill passed, you know? So they need to know the history of Birmingham.”

To this day, it is still not clear exactly how many KKK members were involved in the bombing. In 1965, four serious suspects were named as perpetrators: Thomas Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry. The four, all Klansmen, were never prosecuted by the FBI for the crime.

However, in 1971, former Alabama attorney general and UA alumnus William Baxley reopened the case. He eventually saw Chambliss, the assumed ringleader of the group, be found guilty of murder of Carol Denise McNair on Nov. 18, 1977. Chambliss had plead guilty the entire time, asserting that it was Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., a paid FBI informant who infiltrated the KKK in an attempt to dismantle it, who had committed the crime. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he was primarily kept in solitary confinement as to avoid being attacked by other inmates. He died at Lloyd Noland Hospital in 1985. He was 81.

Cash was never brought to trial or charged for the bombing. He died in 1994 in Pinson, Alabama, at 75 years old.

Rowe had infiltrated Eastview Klavern 13, the most violent KKK chapter in American history, to carry out his informancy. He was also thought to be involved in the bombing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s motel room and the murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, as well as an orchestrator of violent plans to bar James Hood and Vivian Malone from being admitted to The University of Alabama. Rowe was placed in Witness Protection in 1965 under the name Thomas Neil Moore, living in Savannah, Georgia, for his remaining years. He died in 1998 of a heart attack at 64 years old.

Cherry was tried and convicted of four counts of first-degree murder in 2002. He was sentenced to life in prison and lived in the Kilby Correctional Facility in Mt. Meigs until he died of cancer in 2004. He was 74.

Blanton was brought to trial and found guilty of four counts of murder in 2001. He was sentenced to life in prison at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama, and is the only surviving bomber.

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