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Carol McKinstry, Birmingham Church Bombing Survivor, on the ‘Hurt And Grief’

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By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

Carol Maull McKinstry, 15 years old in 1963, had been a member of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church since the age of two and was a secretary at the church. She offered this account of that awful morning when the church was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963 in the book, “Foot Soldiers for Democracy: The Men, Women and Children of The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement” by Horace Huntley and John W. Kerley, 2009.

The blast killed Cynthia Wesley, 14, Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Addie Mae Collins, 14.

“I always left home very early. My dad worked his second job on Sunday, and he would drop us off as he went to work. Normally, I took my sister to Sunday school with my two younger brothers and me. She wouldn’t let me comb her hair that morning. I didn’t want to take her anyway. So I told my mother, ‘She won’t let me comb her hair.’ She said, ‘OK, just go on without her.’

“So I took my brothers, and my dad dropped us off. He was headed toward Mountain Brook. I assumed my duties as secretary. I had come through the downstairs area to pass out the attendance cards and the little envelopes where you record your money.

“I had done that and was heading back upstairs, when I saw the girls in the bathroom sort of laughing and talking and putting on their robes. They were excited. Actually, everybody was in Sunday school class, which is probably where they should have been, but they were excited.

“The phone rang. I answered the phone, and someone said, ‘Two minutes.’

“[Rev. John T. Cross, church pastor] had not made us aware–maybe he made some of the adults aware—but a general announcement had not been made to the church that we had received bomb threats. I didn’t know, didn’t even think about what this might mean. The caller hung up. They said that, and then ‘click.’ I was just standing there and kind of thought about it, hung the phone up, and stepped out into the sanctuary because I had three or four more classes that I needed to give these cards to.”

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will observe the 60th year commemoration of the bombing on September 15 at 9:30 a.m. with Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black women on the Supreme Court of the United States, as the memorial service speaker.

After the bombing, McKinstry said, “my first thoughts immediately were to find my two younger brothers.

“I could see that something had happened. I think I learned in that first minute or two that I was out there that our church had been bombed. Everybody was looking for some­body. I was looking for my two younger brothers and couldn’t find them. They were in the Sunday school classes downstairs. So I went back downstairs, and I remember going into the boys’ bathroom first, because I looked in all of the classrooms and I couldn’t find them, so I went in the boys’ bathroom, and I didn’t see them there.

“Then I started in the girls’ bathroom and I said, ‘If they went to the bathroom, they probably wouldn’t be in there.’ But then they might, because they were little boys. They were, like, seven and five. So maybe they ran this way or maybe they just didn’t know where to go. I spent a lot of time in the basement looking for them. I never found them, but my baby brother was found on Eighth Avenue, two blocks away.

“He had jumped out one of those side windows when it broke and just started running. I guess he ran with no real sense of where he was running, just knowing that he needed to get out of there. He just ran. Someone called my mom at home to tell her that they had bombed the church. When she was heading to the church to check on us, she encountered my baby brother.

“My dad found my oldest brother downtown. I guess a lot of kids just ran; they just scattered. I had been home about an hour and Mrs. [Alpha] Robertson called our house.

“She asked me did I see Carole. I said, ‘No.’ She asked to speak with my mom and just asked if she had seen her. She said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Maybe my Carole is all right. Your Carol is at home, so maybe my Carole is all right too.'”

“Afraid … Frightened”

McKinstry said she was constantly in fear.

“… I decided that I was probably going to be killed with one of these bombs. I was afraid. I was frightened. And it seemed there was no control. There was no way to stop what they were doing. There was no way to protect yourself. Helplessness is what I felt. I was so withdrawn after the church bombing. I did not attend the funeral of the four girls. I remember Mrs. Robertson calling. They were asking for some of us to be flower bearers at the funerals. I told my mom, ‘Please don’t make me go.’ I was not sure what I would see.

“I knew I was really hurting inside and grieving that my friends were gone. I just did not want to be—I didn’t want to see them. I didn’t want to be there—part of that. She kept trying to encourage me to go. Finally, the day of the funeral, she called and said, ‘I think I’ll let her stay here.’ I didn’t attend the funerals. I just didn’t.”

With the theme of “Looking 60 years forging Justice for a Better World,” the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will commemorate the 60th year anniversary of the church bombing on Friday, Sept. 15 at 9:30 a.m. The morning will feature a special keynote by the first African American female U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. For more information, go to www.16thstreetbaptist.org