They were in the downstairs church bathroom, the five girls, preparing to don their choir robes. They all had walked to the church that September 15 Sunday morning, and the weather was hot, so they “freshened up.” And you just know they gossiped. Denise, 11, and new teens Addie and her sister Sarah, Cynthia, and Carol.
Sarah was standing to the side of the sink as Denise asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. Sarah said recently, “When Addie reached out to tie it, that’s when I heard this sound, boom, the bomb went off.”
A dozen or more sticks of dynamite had been planted underneath the church outside stairs, the blast destroying the bathroom wall, killing four of the girls and leaving Sarah standing upright in the rubble, her right eye blasted from her head and glass shards in her left eye. Leaving Sarah, who had dreamed of being a nurse, alone and blinded, standing in the gore that was left of her sister and friends.
Somewhere that day, four white man, members of the Ku Klux Klan laughed and joshed one another and crowed that they had struck a blow for the white people of Birmingham, Alabama, for the cause of white supremacy across the land. The FBI quickly identified the suspects, but J. Edgar Hoover quashed the files. Hoover then, is the fifth murderer.
It was the George Wallace era in the South, Wallace vowing “segregation forever” and encouraging white people to be violent. He got his wish. Years later, Wallace, paralyzed from a would-be assassin’s bullet, was wheeled into Martin Luther King’s Montgomery church and asked the congregation for forgiveness.
One of the Klansmen was tried in the 70s and convicted. After Bill Clinton became president, the FBI files were reopened, and U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, now senator, successfully convicted two more of the men, the last survivor dying in jail at age 82.
Sarah’s lawyer has petitioned the State of Alabama to grant her reparations for her stolen life. Republican Governor Kay Ivey—after receiving a petition from Sarah’s lawyers, citing the fact that while the State of Alabama did not kill four girls and maim a fifth, its governor (Wallace) had played a role in the deaths—is considering whether or not to grant the request. Ivey is not known for racial sensitivity. She failed to attend the recent openings of the museums dedicated to the histories of lynching and slavery, saying she hadn’t been invited.
I visited those museums two years ago. Knowing about horror, about man’s inhumanity to man (and the planet), does not prepare one for the emotional experience of walking through acres of sculptures and photographs commemorating the lynched (46 from Illinois). Nor does it prepare one walking the downtown streets, with every block featuring a plaque telling visitors of slave auctions held in those places, for beating hearts and wobbly legs. And then there is the shocking statue at the top of the state capitol steps honoring Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” who did his research on slave women, operating without anesthesia. The Nazis were fixated with white supremacy. It is said that Dr. Mengele was influenced by Dr. Sims.
The photos. The two men who murdered Emmet Till, arms around each other, laughing, knowing they will never pay a price for their crime. Till’s mangled body in his casket. The “strange fruit” of thousands of lynching victims. The white women and girls spitting on little Ruby Bridges as she enters a desegregated school. Martin Luther King lying on the motel balcony. The charred cross on the Rock springs golf course, across the street from the Conley family’s house, Elijah Conley having had the temerity to file a lawsuit to get his kid into a desegregated Alton school. George Floyd in the last moment of his life.
It is all coming back around. I saw it—the future—a few years back. I had struck up a Facebook friendship with a columnist for a Northern California newspaper. We shared a love of the Southern Gothic novelist William Gay. The Californian pissed off a lot of people in his area, and I’d like to think I’ve stirred the Alton pot (I’m proud to say that a prominent local artist attacked me for commenting on racism in Alton). But then he fell in love with Trump. He suddenly looked at himself in the mirror and decided he was an endangered species. White men were going to be destroyed. I called him and gave him the courtesy of telling him why we were through. He hung up the phone.
Sarah Collins Rudolph, the fifth little girl of Birmingham, deserves all the bags of money in the Alabama coffers. It won’t bring Addie Mae back; it won’t replace Sarah’s eyes. It will, it will, it will be a step toward justice.