CHICAGO (CBS) — An unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement was the guest speaker at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at St. Sabina Church on Sunday.
Sarah Collins Rudolph survived the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Her 14-year-old sister, Addie Mae Collins, was one of the four girls who were killed in the racist attack.
“Although the murder of these girls made national headlines, the story of the lone survivor went unnoticed,” said St. Sabina Pastor the Rev. Michael Pfleger.
Before Rudolph recalled the details of that fateful day, she shared some of the atrocities of Jim Crow laws.
“When I was a small girl, I remember my mother – how she would place a piece of paper on our feet, and mark on the sides of our feet, because blacks at that time were not allowed to try the shoes on,” she said.
But on that morning in 1963, Rudolph and her sister and friends were excited to be at church. The girls had just walked out of the ladies’ lounge where they had been hanging out, and one of them had just asked Addie to tie her sash, when everyone heard the explosion, Rudolph said.
Addie Mae Collins never answered when her name was called after the bomb went off. Meanwhile, Rudolph was rushed to the hospital and was first told by another of her sisters that Addie would be there to see her the following day.
“But after they operated on my eyes and I went upstairs, my mother was up there and she told me, ‘Sarah, all the girls that were in the ladies’ lounge with you – they all were killed. You were the only one that survived,” Rudolph said. “And I began to wonder, why did they kill them? You know, because – beautiful, beautiful girls; never did any harm to no one. And all of them was killed simply because of our race.”
After Rudolph had been in the hospital for about a week, the doctor took the bandages off her eyes and she noticed she had lost all sight in her right eye. She said her right eye ended up having to be removed – or else she risked going blind in both eyes.
Rudolph now wears a prosthesis, and still has a piece of glass lodged in her left eye, as CBS News noted.
Meanwhile, Rudolph said loud noises such as backfiring cars left her jumpy and scared. She added that as she got older, she began to “medicate” herself with substances such as alcohol and marijuana.
She credited returning to faith and churchgoing with finally allowing her to find some personal peace.
The event Sunday also featured a reading of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” as well as music and praise dancing.
Pfleger emphasized a need to follow Dr. King’s example in amid the turmoil of the present day.
“We need his moral compass in a society that seemingly has none. We need his voice of consciousness in a time when it seems like there is no soul left in America. We need his uncompromising stand for nonviolence while we live in a country, and while we live in an America and in our own city while violence still runs rampant, in our streets and in our country, and in the way we handle our disagreements from the White House to the street,” Pfleger said.