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Mamie King-Chalmers, Blasted by Birmingham Firehose in Famous 1963 Photo, Dead at 81

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One of the most famous photographs of the civil rights movement, snapped by Alabamian Charles Moore of Black Star photo agency for Life magazine, was taken May 3, 1963. Mamie King-Chalmers said she's on the left.

Greg Garrison | ggarrison@al.com

Mamie King-Chalmers, who was blasted by a firehose in Birmingham in 1963 as she took part in civil rights protests that were captured in a famous Life magazine photograph, has died in Detroit.

She was 81.

King-Chalmers died on Tuesday, Nov. 29, after struggling with declining health this year, said her daughter, Lasuria Allman.

“She should be remembered for her courage, strength and determination to make a difference,” Allman said.

Chalmers was photographed during a civil rights demonstration on May 3, 1963. The famous photograph by Charles Moore appeared in Life magazine.

Brenda Phillips Hong of Birmingham said she was an eyewitness who saw Mamie King step forward to the front of the demonstration, as she often did.

Mamie King-Chalmers returned to Kelly Ingram Park on Dec. 13, 2013. She says she was blasted by a firehose May 3, 1963, just across Sixth Avenue on the north side of the park, which was captured in a photograph taken by Charles Moore that ran in Life magazine. (Photo by Greg Garrison/ggarrison@al.com)

“Mamie was one of those proud, indestructible people who moved forward,” Hong said. “She was much stronger than me. She was moving forward. I was 16. I was scared. I knew Mamie, her brother Barry and her family. We’re both from Pratt City. I knew her in elementary and high school. Not just that day; Mamie was in a whole lot of other protests. Mamie was like our hero. Mamie was in another incident with a police dog. I was scared. Mamie was there in the forefront, just there.”

Carolyn McKinstry, author of the 2011 memoir “While the World Watched,” appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1999 and claimed it was her in the picture.

Hong, a childhood friend of King-Chalmers and first-hand witness of the protests, contacted King-Chalmers in Detroit and let her know that someone was garnering publicity by presenting herself as the woman in the picture.

Chalmers had been trying to set the record straight ever since, first contacting McKinstry in 1997, she said. McKinstry in 2013 dropped her claim that it was her in the picture, after an investigation by the Detroit News and follow-up stories in The Birmingham News and on AL.com.

“For a long time we did not know this was going on,” Shirley Gavin Floyd, chairman of the Civil Rights Activist Committee, said of the fraudulent claim at the time. “I wish one day we could name everybody in a photo.”

That’s not possible because so many of those on the front lines did not come forward to seek publicity or credit, she said. King-Chalmers said her and her brother, Barry King, appeared in several photos taken of demonstrators with firehoses and dogs in Birmingham in 1963.

It was puzzling when she began to hear McKinstry claiming it was her in the picture, because McKinstry would have been only 14 at the time and looks nothing like the woman in the photo, Hong said.

“That’s why I couldn’t believe it from the beginning,” Hong said. Hong said other demonstrators may have been hit by firehoses, “but I can say that’s Mamie Chalmers,” she said.

“I was 21 years old,” Chalmers said. “Anybody knows that’s not a 14-year-old in that picture.”

Chalmers was born in Birmingham on June 14, 1941, and grew up in the Pratt City neighborhood of Birmingham but later moved to Detroit.

For the past 25 years, she has been a community activist, raising money and sending shoes to children in Liberia and Ghana in Africa, said Allman.

Her husband of more than 37 years, Walter Chalmers, died earlier this year on Feb. 1, Allman said.

“She had been ill,” Allman said. “She broke her ankle this year and her health has been downhill since then.”

Although she had never sought publicity earlier, she felt that it was a matter of “stolen pride” that someone was claiming to have been her, Allman said.

Chalmers-King felt more at peace after widely re-establishing that it indeed was her in the historic photograph, Allman said.

“She received proclamations,” Allman said. “People held events for her.”

Funeral will be at Pye Funeral Home on Plymouth Road in Detroit, on Dec. 10 at 11 a.m., with visitation Dec. 9 from 5 to 8 p.m.