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“A Stain on the Legacy of Birmingham”: 1963 Church Bombing Survivor Struggles to Pay Medical Bills

Web ExclusiveSeptember 17, 2013
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Part two of our conversation with Sarah Collins Rudolph, who is often referred to as the “fifth victim” of the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Rudolph’s sister, Addie Mae Collins, was killed along with three other young girls. Collins Rudolph was hit with shards of glass, lost an eye and was hospitalized for months. She is struggling to pay her medical bills. We also speak with Adam Goldman of the Associated Press who covered the trial of Thomas Blanton, the last surviving Klansman convicted in the church bombing. Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, those were the names of the four little girls who were killed 50 years ago this week, September 15th, 1963, when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The bombing came less than a month after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Denise was 11 years old; Carole, Cynthia and Addie Mae, 14. Hundreds gathered in the nation’s capital last week to honor their memory when lawmakers posthumously awarded the girls the Congressional Gold Medal.

Well, today our guest is a woman who is often referred to as the “fifth victim” of the bombing, Sarah Collins Rudolph. She was 12 when the church was attacked, standing next to her older sister, who was 14, Addie Mae Collins. Sarah Collins Rudolph was hit with shards of glass, lost and eye, was hospitalized for months. Today she continues to live in Birmingham, Alabama, where she joins us now.

We’re also joined by Adam Goldman. He’s the Associated Press Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, whose new book is just out, called Enemies Within: Inside the NYPD’s Secret Spying Unit and Bin Laden’s Final Plot Against America. But that’s not why he’s here. He’s here because before he was at AP, he worked for the Birmingham News, and to this day he continues to correspond with one of those who were convicted of the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. As we go from talking about terrorism and 9/11, we’re talking about another kind of terrorism, 50 years ago: innocent people killed by a bomb that was planted in a church on a Sunday morning.

Adam Goldman, if you could start by explaining what actually is understood about what happened on that morning, September 15, 1963?

ADAM GOLDMAN: Well, there are a group of Klansmen who plotted this bombing in Birmingham. At the time, in 1963, Birmingham was going through a wave of bombings. In fact, its nickname was “Bombingham.” And these individuals got together, and they built this bomb. And at about—authorities suspect that at about 2:00 a.m., they put the bomb at the side of the church. And Thomas Blanton, one of the bombers who was convicted, his car was seen at the church and—driving the car, and he drove away, and the bomb went off. There is some speculation that the bomb was supposed to go off while the church was empty, and it wasn’t, in fact, meant to go off while it was filled with people. But regardless, it did go off, and people were killed, and they were held responsible for that.

The case went unsolved for many, many years until this individual named Chambliss was eventually convicted in state court, and he was put away for life, and he died. And then, later, I believe in 1996, 1997, the FBI reopened this investigation. In fact, right at the time as Spike Lee was beginning this documentary, the FBI reopened this investigation. I know that because I got the FBI’s investigative files; I FOIAed them. And they worked to solve this—they worked to solve this horrific crime and eventually zeroed in on the two surviving bombers: this guy named Bobby Cherry and Thomas Blanton. And they initially were going to squeeze Cherry to rat out Blanton, but these two old Klansmen weren’t going to tell anybody. It had been so long, they weren’t going to spill the beans about what happened.

And eventually the FBI found recordings sitting on a shelf in the Birmingham’s field office, recordings of an informant they put in a car with Thomas Blanton talking about the bombing. And they managed to get the recordings digitally enhanced, and they used that, along with the testimony of the informant, to convict Blanton. And eventually Cherry was convicted, too. Cherry—they both were sentenced to life in prison, and then Cherry later died.

So, for years and years, I’ve been writing Blanton letters. He only recently responded to me. And I’ve been learning a little bit more about his life and who he was and—

AMY GOODMAN: Where is he imprisoned?

ADAM GOLDMAN: He is in St. Clair County, Alabama, in a place called Springville, in a little town called Springville. And in these letters, he expresses some—some regret that four little girls had died, that there was a loss of life. But he is insistent that he didn’t carry this out and in fact he’s innocent. So—

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you say he is unrepentant.

ADAM GOLDMAN: Yeah, he is unrepentant.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?

ADAM GOLDMAN: Well, despite all the evidence, despite all the indications that he did this—and this was actually ferreted out in court, and he was convicted—that he refuses to acknowledge his role in this. And, you know, I thought about why—why would you—why wouldn’t you just come clean? Why wouldn’t you just tell the story? Because what’s fascinating about the 16th Street bombing is we still don’t know really what happened. We have an idea of what happened. You know, we think some guys, some Klansmen, built a bomb, they put it in a car, and they put it next to the church, right? And the bomb went off. But nobody who participated in that event has ever told the true story of what happened. And Blanton is the last individual alive who can tell us why they did it, how they did it, when they did it, and did, in fact, that they mean to kill—did, in fact—was their intention to blow up that church.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Collins Rudolph, you’re with us from Birmingham, Alabama. You are a survivor of that church bombing, when you were 12 years old. Your sister, Addie Mae Collins, died at the age of 14. You were with her. You lost your eye. Can you describe your other injuries? What else happened to you? And also what Birmingham was like? As Adam was saying, people described it as “Bombingham.”

SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: Yes, I had had injury in my left eye. I have had glaucoma for years, where I have to take pills—I mean, pills and also drops in my eyes every day. But last June, they operated on it and put an incision in my eye to drain the fluid, because my pressure had been up for a long time.

And also, yes, Birmingham was—it was a way of life back then. We would hear bombs going off, and we would see the police beating blacks with billy sticks and water hose. And it was just a terrorist place, really, to live in. But we stayed. We wanted to leave, but we just didn’t have the money to do it, to go. So, things are a little better now. So, we’re still here in Birmingham.

AARON MATÉ: You went to the Birmingham City Council last year for help. Your husband asked for help in covering your medical bills. What was their response?

SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: At first they said, “Go to the county.” See, we stay in the county part of Birmingham. “Go to the county, because they don’t do things like that here in the city.” But anyway, the City Council people said, “Well, we can help her.” They do it all over in other cities. They get funds to help people that’s been in a terrorist attack. He said, “We can do it here.” But when they offered me something, it wasn’t what I had expected, because it was very little, because, you know, during these 50 years I’ve suffered a lot. And I just wanted to let them know that it was time for restitution, because the city was involved in all this—the fire department, the police department. They was involved in all the terrorist act that was going on in Birmingham, because during that time, we couldn’t—we couldn’t call the city police and ask for help, because we weren’t going to get any help, since they was involved.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Adam Goldman—you have just written a book after the September 11th attacks and how the police in New York deal with investigating terrorism, and you’re very critical. But I want to go this issue of terrorism. What is defined as terrorism, and what isn’t, as a person, yourself, who investigated after September 11th and investigated the 16th Street church bombing in Birmingham 50 years ago?

ADAM GOLDMAN: I mean, this was—what the Ku Klux Klan was doing in Birmingham, this was terrorism. They had a political agenda. They didn’t want to see the Jim Crow laws essentially rolled back. They wanted to make sure that blacks remained segregated. And, you know, we forget this, but this was—for the people living in Birmingham, especially for the black community, this was a reign of terror, literally. I mean, there were—I remember in one year, I think it was 1963, I mean, dozens of pipe bombs were set off across the city. I mean, it was a campaign of intimidation. And the blacks living in Birmingham, they couldn’t trust the police. They couldn’t trust the police. I mean, the police were infiltrating their organizations, the same way that they were doing now in some respects. Then, it was because they were black and because they wanted certain rights. But, you know, the level—there are certain level—there are certain similarities to what we see today in Birmingham then with the Birmingham Police Department and the NYPD today. There is a level of mistrust in the community today, just as there was among minority communities in Birmingham. They couldn’t trust the people who were sworn to protect them.

AMY GOODMAN: And then the issue of compensation. I mean, here you have Sarah Collins Rudolph, who lost her sister, who lost her own eye, was deeply injured. The Congress, a delegation goes down and honors the community, the families, with the Congressional Medal of Honor, but in terms of help, for example, for this survivor, Sarah Collins Rudolph, she has not seen it.

ADAM GOLDMAN: No, and that’s extraordinary itself, because after the Boston bombing, right, after the Boston bombing that we just went through, the community rallied. I mean, people came together, and they gave these bombing victims—you could go online, and you could pledge. And I was watching it. It was just extraordinary. One couple‚ you know, within days, they had raised a million dollars. A million dollars, you know? And that’s—that’s a stain on the legacy of Birmingham, and they know this, that the community didn’t come together, everybody didn’t come together after this bombing and make sure that, you know, the people who were injured or that were—were taken care of.

AARON MATÉ: Ms. Rudolph, you have been denied compensation. Initially, the Congressional Gold Medal wasn’t going to—it didn’t include you. Do you feel as if history has forgotten what happened to you?

SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: Yes, I feel like they have forgotten, and they wasn’t really concerned about what happened to me, because I’m still suffering. I have a piece of glass still in my good eye, and also I have cataracts. And I have a piece of glass still in my stomach, and I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and I’ve been going through a lot. And just getting up in the morning, I had to go and clean houses just to make money. Like yesterday, I should have been resting, getting some rest from what I went through on the weekend, but I had to go get up at 6:00 and still go to work, when if there was money that was—that had been given to me, I wouldn’t have to do this. So, I feel like I have been forgotten, because all of—I know the four girls should get all the praise, because they died, they was killed. But I’m still here suffering. I’m still suffering from that bomb. And post-traumatic stress disorder is something that I’ve suffered with, and I look like I just can’t get over it. And right now, my husband, he would pay for my medical bill because he had insurance at the place that he worked, but he’s retired, and I don’t have any insurance now. So, I just don’t know when my—when my next check-up is going to be in November, I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it. But I just thank God, though, that I’m alive, because if it had not been for God, I would have, you know, been killed, myself. So I just want to let the people know that I give him all the praise. And I believe one day, one day, it going to come, and God going to do it. The money will come.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Collins Rudolph, what is your message to the people who carried out this attack that took your sister from you, that killed four little girls, that wounded you and others, that changed Birmingham, Alabama?

SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: My message to the people is that we can all love one another. We don’t have to hate one another because of race. We can just get together and have peace in this world, because God [inaudible]—you know, he gave us peace, and we should have peace with one another. It don’t hurt, you know. Violence, it hurts, and it leaves you like the bomb left me. I’m not the same anymore. So they just got to realize we can love each other, we can love people all over the world, because we all the human race.

AMY GOODMAN: Has anyone reached out to you from the Birmingham government, or even when the congressional delegation came down—I believe it was the House speaker, John Boehner, who awarded the Congressional Medal—to talk to you about compensation—something we have seen over and over again when these terrorist attacks happen, from the Boston Marathon bombing to 9/11?

SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: No, I haven’t had anyone to talk to me about any compensation yet, but I’m just hoping, soon, that they will, because it’s really overdue. You know, it’s 50 years now, and I’ve suffered. And yet, like I say, people are not concerned. They’re not concerned like they ought to, because when they offered me the little money that they did offer, they wanted me to speak four times for it. But I—like I said, I was in a bombing, and why should they set up something to speak four times, when they have known all along that I was injured? And I was badly injured. This wasn’t something that—a scratch. I had to have my eyes removed—my right eye removed because of this attack. And it don’t—it really don’t feel good at all, you being looked over, like they’re saying, “Well, you didn’t die, so don’t expect anything.” But I expect something—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean you were expected to talk? What do you mean you were expected to talk?

SARAH COLLINS RUDOLPH: They wanted me to speak four times about the bombing, four times, and I was going to get what you call—have somebody to coach me, and I didn’t need to be coached. When you go through something like that, it rings in my ears and in my mind all the time. You know, what’s next? What’s next? 'Cause it was a scary thing, and I still jump when I hear loud sounds. So I'm suffering every day. I had the scars on my face. And also, I try to live, but, you know, living like I live, where I shouldn’t have to really just suffer for anything. And people—like the man was saying, people around the world, over there in the marathon bomb, they get—they get moneys for their injury, but I haven’t yet had anything, and I suffer every day.

And also, my sister, we can’t even find her remains. I don’t know where her remains—we wanted to move my sister to a new—another cemetery. But when they exhumed her body, it wasn’t there—her there inside the casket. It was somebody with false teeth. And we don’t know where Addie’s remains today. It seem like people wasn’t even concerned about that. So I’m just wondering—I look at Birmingham, and they say they changed, but Birmingham, they got a long way to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Collins Rudolph, I want to thank you for being with us. Sarah Collins Rudolph did survive the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, September 15, 1963, 50 years ago, that killed her older sister, Addie Mae, who was 14 years old, and three other little girls. Sarah Collins Rudolph has been referred to as the fifth little girl. She was hit with shards of glass, lost an eye, was hospitalized for months. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté.

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StorySep 17, 2013“The Fifth Little Girl”: Birmingham Church Bombing Survivor Still Seeks Compensation 50 Years On
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