Fifty years ago, a sound like thunder interrupted an ordinary Sunday morning at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Sometime the night before, a Klansman had crawled under the front steps, burrowed under the girls rest room and placed twenty sticks of dynamite there. They were timed to ignite during Sunday School. The explosion killed four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.
That church bombing, now recognized as one of the key events of the Civil Rights Movement, was only one of many 1963 moments that spurred the nation to get serious about those “created equal” words in the Declaration of Independence. Five months before the bombing, Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested during a protest march and wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Four months before the bombing, Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on black demonstrators. Three months before the bombing, NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was murdered outside his Mississippi home. One month before the bombing, Rev. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.
1963 was both a tragic and momentous year. The four girls killed during their Sunday School class became heroic reminders of the country’s failure to fulfill the promise of freedom and equality that thousands of men–white and black–had fought and died for a century earlier. The deaths of the four young heroes led to the Movement’s later successes, including passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But there was a fifth victim, a girl who survived. Wichita Public Radio recently interviewed her, Addie Mae’s sister Sarah. She remembers that after being showered with shards of staned glass: “I was standing there, just standing there bleeding, And somebody came and they just picked me up and took me out through the hole and put me in [an] ambulance.” Sarah Collins lost an eye and spent months in the hospital.
Perhaps it’s easier to make heroes of the dead. We who survive turn them into blank canvases on which we feel free to write whatever message we choose. They’re not alive to challenge those messages. We say things like: “If President Kennedy was alive today, he’d say … .” Or, “If Rev. King was here, he’d support my bill to …”. And when the dead become our heroes we need not contend with the inconvenient details of the lives they would have gone on to live. In its interview Wichita Public Radio reported that politicians are now proposing that the four dead girls be awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom–the highest civilian honor that Congress can award.
Sarah Collins did not die. She quickly faded from memory even as the sacrifice of her sister and the other three martyrs became part of civil rights history just as quickly. She is not asking for a Congressional Medal of Freedom. She’d just like a little help. And maybe some recognition that she too was a victim of racist hatred and that she’s spent the last fifty years paying the price for that hatred. Horrible memories. Huge medical bills (not always covered by health insurance). And a shocking reminder every time she looks in the mirror and sees–with her one eye–the scars across her face.
What is a nation’s responsibility to victims of terror? And what if that terror that was encouraged, condoned or ignored by the governments of that nation’s component states? George Rudolph pointed out to Wichita Public Radio that while his wife got nothing, the victims of terror in the World Trade Center received prompt and generous compensation. Wikipedia says that the average payout to 9/11 victims or their families was $1.7 million. In 1988 a Libyan terrorist bomb killed hundreds of airline passengers over Lockerbie, Scotland. Eventually the Libyan government handed over $1.5 billion to compensate the families of American victims..
What responsibility must we accept for Sarah Collins Rudolph? What must we do to accept that responsibility? Give her a Congressional Medal of Freedom? Or maybe something more?