Witness to 1963 Alabama church bombing still troubled by environment in country

Witness to 1963 Alabama church bombing still troubled by environment in country

Shock wave

February 13th, 2011 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

The woman is Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who narrowly missed being killed by the same bombing which killed four of her friends. She has written a new book on the subject, ÒWhile the World Watched,Ó which is co-written by Chattanooga native Denise George.

The woman is Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who narrowly...

"Three minutes."

Those were the two words spoken by an unidentified caller when Carolyn McKinstry picked up the telephone in the office of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963.

The 14-year-old girl serving as a Sunday school secretary put down the phone and walked 15 steps into the church's adjoining sanctuary.

At that moment, 10:22 a.m., a bomb planted by a Ku Klux Klan splinter group exploded underneath an outside set of stairs, killing four girls McKinstry had spoken to moments earlier.

The incident is often cited as a seminal moment in the civil rights movement, an event that caused many Americans to pay attention.

Dennis Pettibone, chairman of the history department at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, said the 16th Street Church bombing and Bloody Sunday, a 1965 attack by lawmen on civil rights marchers outside of Selma, Ala., were two incidents that "stand up" as crucial in the civil rights movement.

"The fact that somebody was willing to kill children because of their hatred showed the rest of the country how virulent racism was down here," he said.

McKinstry, 63, who was then Carolyn Maull, said she has "long since forgiven the four men [later found to be responsible for the bombing], though it was for my benefit more than theirs."

Today, the Birmingham resident is a full-time minister who speaks on racial reconciliation throughout the world.

"While the World Watched," a book about the bombing written in collaboration with Chattanooga native Denise George, was published in January.

Nearly 48 years after the incident, during Black History Month and in the era of America's first black president, McKinstry remains "troubled about the environment still in America" and believes Americans are still "capable of that [type of violence] today."

"We're the only people in the world so concerned with what color people are, with race," she said.

McKinstry said religious bodies and their adherents should take the lead in changing the climate.

"I hope particularly those in the faith community will take the word of God seriously," she said. "We should live by the instruction [God] has given us as a model."


McKinstry grew up in Birmingham. By the time she was a teenager she was steeped in the consequence of racism.

When her grandmother got sick, she was brought to the city and placed in the basement of the hospital because it didn't admit blacks to rooms. She died within two weeks.

When McKinstry was a top citywide, countywide and statewide speller as a student, she wasn't allowed to attend the national competition because of her race.

In 1963, as the civil rights struggle grew to a fever pitch in Birmingham, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke at 16th Street Baptist, which was the scene of numerous meetings of civil rights leaders.

In May of 1963, she participated in the Children's Crusade, a march by schoolchildren who wanted to confront the mayor about segregation in the city.

"I understood exactly why we were marching," McKinstry said. "We could purchase [something in stores], but we couldn't eat there, couldn't drink out of the water fountains, couldn't use their restroom. We wanted to break down the separate barriers."

During the march, Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor had fire hoses turned on the hundreds of marchers and subsequently had many arrested.

McKinstry had a portion of scalp torn off by the force of the water, which also blew a hole in her sweater.

Growing up in Chattanooga in the same era, George, who is white, was aware of the Jim Crow segregation laws and separate facilities for "colored."

While her family briefly lived in Atlanta, she remembers sitting in church and hearing about God's love and the Good Samaritan. After church at Lester Maddux's popular PickRick restaurant, though, she said a black mynah bird routinely spouted racial epithets, and a glass case displayed ax handles of various sizes as weapons to dispel blacks.

"It was confusing to me," she said. "How could I hear ... the same Christian people [she knew from church] talk about beating up black people. It was a sign of the times. Nobody said anything; it was a given. I wonder today how in the world did Christian people let it happen."


On Sept. 15, 1963, McKinstry stopped at the door of the 16th Street Baptist restroom to talk to her friends Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. Three were 14 years old like her; one was 11. One was in a club with her.

Moments later, she climbed two flights of stairs to resume her job as secretary, which she guesses she got because she was "kind of friendly, talkative and precocious."

Then came what may have been a warning phone call and, moments later, the blast.

The next moments, with rubble everywhere, were confusing, McKinstry said. Her first thoughts were to find her younger brothers, for whom she'd been given responsibility when they were dropped off at church.

Her brothers, it turned out, had run in different directions. One ran toward her father's work, and was picked up by her father on the way to the church after he heard the explosion. The other ran the other way and grabbed onto the leg of a man, who in turn called the children's mother to let her know his whereabouts.

McKinstry didn't find out about her friends' deaths until 4 p.m. that day.

"It would be years," she said, "before I would know how close I had come [to being killed]."

George said McKinstry's family didn't discuss the incident with her, and it wasn't discussed at school. When "she was just miserable, sad, shocked" and put her head on her desk, a black classmate told her she was "making more out of this than you should."

"There was not really anything to talk about at home," she said. "We had no power to stop bombings. It was adult conversation -- nothing to discuss with children. We understood we were powerless."


McKinstry went on to graduate from Fisk University, married and had children, dealt with alcohol addiction and eventually moved with her husband back to Birmingham. She was subpoenaed to testify in the trial of bombing suspect Bobby Cherry in 2004.

"That was hard," she said, "in addition to being a little frightening. I'd rather not have done it."

In time, according to George, McKinstry felt God was calling her to quit her job and work on racial reconciliation.

Today, she is a graduate of Stamford University's Beeson Divinity School. She helped raise $4 million to have the church repaired, serves as president of the 16th Street Foundation and helped get the church on the National Register of Historic Places.

As McKinstry travels to talk about her experiences, she said many people aren't even aware of the bombing or have a murky view of events. People even ask to touch her and are amazed there is someone still alive who has a connection to the incident.

"We forget really, really quickly in this country," she said. It's important to keep people "reminded of what happens when we teach hate," she said.

George said writing the book with McKinstry fortified her resolve to judge people by their hearts, not by first appearances.

"People are different," she said. "We need to see them with God's eyes. We need to treat every person with dignity and respect. As a world, we don't do that."

Nevertheless, McKinstry said, a better world is still possible.

"My message is one of love," she said. "This is what the Bible teaches, what our churches should be teaching. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, I think we'll get it right."