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Sarah Collins Rudolph

In 1963, Sarah Collins lost a sister, three friends and her right eye, when a bomb went off at a church in Birmingham

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My Story

Sarah Collins Rudolph is a carrier of history. In fact, she remembers every detail of that Sept. 15, 1963.

For decades, people claimed to have come downstairs earlier that morning to see the girls in the bathroom-- also known as the ladies' lounge--laughing and combing each other's hair.

Rudolph says that isn't true, because the girls were only in the bathroom for a few minutes.

She says other people have claimed they saw all five girls playing together outside of the church that morning. Rudolph says that never happened, because that meeting in ladies' lounge was the first time all five girls saw each other that morning.

In fact, she says that morning started out with she and her sisters taking a jovial walk to church.

"I remember we were coming to church. It was three of us. It was my sister Janie, Addie, and myself. We walked to church that morning. We were having so much fun. We were throwing around Janie's little purse. She had a purse shaped like a football. We were throwing it and we laughed all the way."

Later that morning, she and Addie were waiting in the basement bathroom. Rudolph says she was looking out of the bathroom door, wondering when the next Sunday school class was going to let out.

"So that's when I seen Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson. And they came on in to the ladies lounge."

When the girls came out of the bathroom stalls, Denise walked over to Addie, who was standing near the couch, and asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. Rudolph remembers standing near the sink.

"We all stood there. You know, looking to see her tie it. And she reached her hand out like that. And that's when the bomb went off... boom! So we didn't get a chance to see her tie it. And I heard a cry call out: 'Someone bombed the Sixteenth Street church!' It was so clear, it seemed as if that person was in there."

Rudolph said she took a couple of steps, but didn't get very far away from the sink. "I started walking like, you know when the bomb went off, I was calling Addie. I was saying 'Addie, Addie' and she didn't answer. So I thought the girls had ran back to the Sunday school."

That image is burned into Rudolph's memory. Blinded by the shattered glass, Rudolph was rescued by church deacon, Samuel Rutledge, and hospitalized. She says she thinks about it every day, and still sees the scars on her face every time she looks at her reflection in the mirror. She ended up losing an eye in the bombing. While she was hospitalized, a Life magazine photographer snapped an iconic photo of Rudolph lying in her hospital bed, her eyes covered in fist-sized gauze pads. She says she had no idea that the photo had been taken, nor that it polarized a nation that suddenly turned its focus to the civil rights issues rocking the South.

At the time, she says, "The police was involved. The mayor, the governor. They just hated our color. We couldn't even call the police if we wanted. All of them in the office was Ku Klux Klan. So we were having a rough time."

Despite the severity of her injuries, Rudolph received no counseling, little recognition and no restitution.


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