A group of more than 20 people sat recently in the sanctuary of the 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham as a tour guide gave facts about the historical landmark when a woman raised her hand.
“I know there was a fifth girl who survived: Sarah Collins Rudolph. … Does she still live here, and is she around?”
“Yes, she still lives in Birmingham,” the guide responded. “She’s not around, though.”
Rudolph was around. In fact, she was preparing for an interview with The Birmingham Times.
Visitors asked if they could meet Rudolph, who was outside next to the memorial for her sister, Addie Mae Collins, 14, and her friends Carole Robertson,14; Cynthia Wesley,14; and Denise McNair, 11 who were killed instantly when the church was bombed at 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963.
Rudolph, then 12, was in the ladies’ lounge with the girls and was temporarily blinded in both eyes by the bombing. She eventually had to have her right eye removed in order to maintain the vision in her left eye.
As the visitors waited to meet Rudolph, her husband, George, asked if she was OK.
“I know it can bring back memories,” he said.
“I’m fine,” she said.
The sound of a piano being tuned flowed through the air, as it prepared for the upcoming Sunday services and Sept. 15 bombing memorial event. Rudolph, now 66, entered the basement of the church and was recognized by tourists.
She has written a book, “The 5th Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing—The Sarah Collins Rudolph Story,” published by Africa World Press by Tracy Snipe, based on his conversations with Rudolph. And this year, Rudolph will do something she hasn’t done since the church was bombed nearly 54 years ago: speak at the memorial. This is the first time she has been invited to speak, and she said and wants to tell the real story.
“I’ve seen so many people come through here saying what happened that day, and they lied,” Rudolph said. “Some people have gone overseas telling a story, and they weren’t even there. I might as well go and tell the real story.
“People say the girls went in there and were combing each other’s hair and talking. They didn’t even get a chance to do all that. As soon as they came out of the [restroom] stalls, they went over to Addie. As soon as she tried to tie [Denise’s] sash, the bomb went off. A lot of things that came out weren’t true. I decided it’s time to tell what happened.”
Rudolph recalled the day vividly. She remembered it being a good morning when she and her sisters walked to church from their Smithfield home.
“It was Youth Day, and we were going to take up the offering. [The kids] were going to do all the things the adults usually do,” Rudolph recalled.
Rudolph and her sisters had been in Sunday school before entering the restroom.
“When Sunday school ended, [Addie Mae and I] were still in the ladies’ lounge, but [our older sister] Junie went to her class,” Rudolph said. “I was waiting for class to [end], and I saw [Carole, Denise, and Cynthia] come in. We stayed in with them. They went and used the restrooms, while Addie and I were standing in the lounge. She was standing right by the couch, and the couch was right where they had placed the bomb. When they came out of the restroom, they all came out together and went over to Addie. That’s when Denise asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. I was standing by the sink, and we all stood there waiting to see her tie it.
“That’s when the bomb went off. Boom! By the time [Addie] reached her hand out to tie [Denise’s sash], the bomb went off. The debris came from the [shattered] glass window and blinded me. All I could do was say ‘Jesus!’ because it scared me so bad. Then I called out, ‘Addie, Addie.’ The first thing I thought was that they ran back into the Sunday school area. I didn’t have any idea that they all had perished.”
Rudolph said Samuel Rutledge, who was a deacon, rescued her.
“I heard somebody holler, ‘Somebody bombed the 16th Street church,’” she said. “I was told that the deacon, Samuel Rutledge jumped down because the bomb had blown the steps away. He jumped down, looked in there, saw me bleeding, and came in and got me and took me out the hole that the bomb blew. When he took me outside, the ambulance was already waiting. He put me in the ambulance.”
Rudolph’s husband said the blast from the bombing was so loud that it was heard at his church.
“George’s church was on Southside, where Cooper Green [Mercy Health Services] is now, and he said they heard it,” Sarah Rudolph said. “It was so loud, and it shook my body. It put fear in me. I still jump today when I hear loud sounds.”
Rudolph said her family didn’t go back to the church as members after the bombing.
“We came back two times after,” she said. “It was not long after they rebuilt it. But I would just sit there with my arms folded. I didn’t want to be there. I was scared, I was worried another bomb was going to go off.”
She suffered at school as well.
“[Before the bombing], I was an A student. When I went back to school, I couldn’t function like that anymore,” Rudolph said. “I wanted to be a nurse, but I ended up cleaning up houses because I couldn’t function like I used to. If you go through something like that you’re not the same.”
Not having support was rough for the family, she said.
“I stayed and finished elementary and high school, and still nobody came forth and said ‘Sarah, we know what you’re going through.’ My life was changed. My mother’s life was changed. My sister’s life was changed. [My oldest sister], Junie, had to identify Addie’s body. … It was just something that never should have happened. What kind of heart do people have to do something like that?”
Still, Rudolph said she found it in her heart to forgive one of the bombers, Thomas Blanton, when she attended his parole hearing last year.
“I had to forgive him,” she said. “I didn’t want that on me to hate him because the devil used him. You don’t put a bomb in a church and kill innocent children. Hating him and not forgiving him won’t bring my sister back.”
Rudolph admitted that she wanted to leave Birmingham after the bombing.
“I didn’t have the finances, and I was still going through posttraumatic stress disorder,” she said. “Something kept me here, where I just felt like I couldn’t leave Birmingham.”