Sarah Collins Rudolph was about the same age as the middle school students at Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison when she became a national symbol of the civil rights movement in the deep South.
Rudolph was one of five young African-American girls attending Sunday school at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., when a bomb placed by Ku Klux Klan members exploded Sept. 15, 1963. The blast killed the other four, including her sister, Addie Mae, and injured 22 others. Rudolph was left blind in one eye and with 23 pieces of glass embedded in the other.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 18, RPRY students sat rapt as Rudolph, who still lives in Alabama, recalled that day and how she learned to forgive.
Her husband, George, accompanied her on her visit to the school.
The horror surrounding the murder of four little girls, whose funeral attracted more than 8,000 people, is considered a contributing factor to gaining passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The attack prompted King to write to Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a staunch segregationist, “that the blood of our little children is upon your hands.”
Although Rudolph never met King in person, she said she once saw him speak with a bullhorn from the top of the church’s front steps.
After the bombing, her brother wanted to avenge their sister’s death, said Rudolph, but King told him, “Young man, don’t do anything because they killed your sister. That will make you just like them.”
Rudolph recalled walking to class that day with Addie and another sister, Janie.
“We were having so much fun throwing Janie’s purse and catching it,” she said. “It was a beautiful day.”
Rudolph said she was in the church’s restroom with Addie, who was 14, and friends Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The others were across the room while she was by the sinks, when “Boom, the bomb went off.”
“After the bomb, everything started happening,” said Rudolph. A congregant named Samuel Rutledge came running to see what had happened.
“He went to go running down the steps, but he couldn’t because the stairs had been blown away so he jumped because he could see me standing there,” she said. “He scooped me up and ran outside where an ambulance was already waiting, and they rushed me to a hospital.”
Rudolph later learned that 19 sticks of dynamite had been placed under the staircase that ran alongside the restroom.
She asked about her sister and the others and was told Addie had been injured. Only later did she learn that she was the lone survivor.
“I stayed in the hospital for months,” said Rudolph, who regained sight in her left eye. The following February she had to have her right eye removed and replaced by a prosthesis.
After being released from the hospital, Rudolph said, she returned to school right away without benefit of any psychological assistance.
“They didn’t have counselors in those days,” said Rudolph, who added that she managed to get by through her strong Christian faith.
‘Trust in God’
Four members of the Ku Klux Klan were suspected in connection with the attack, although it wasn’t until 1977 when the first of them was tried and convicted of murder. Two others were convicted and given life sentences in 2001 and 2002, respectively, and a fourth died in 1994 without being charged.
As she spoke, Rudolph removed her dark protective eyeglasses to show students the almost imperceptible damage.
“When all else fails, trust in God,” she said. She always tells audiences, especially schoolchildren, not to hate.
The students listened intently and asked many questions. Did they rebuild the church? Does she go back to the church or is she afraid? Did she think it could ever happen again? What was it like to live in the segregated South and what are race relations like now?
“Alabama is so much different,” said Rudolph. “It’s really calmed down. There are so many more opportunities for black people. Back then they didn’t want us to have good jobs.”
Moreover, friendships between blacks and whites are not uncommon. She does often return to the church, which is back functioning as a house of worship.
“I thought it was horrifying,” said Reuven Dersovitz, a 12-year-old seventh grader from Highland Park. “I can’t imagine this happening today. I would have been scared out of my mind if a bomb went off when I was sitting in synagogue.”
Nili Lang, 13, said she found Rudolph’s story “amazing.”
“I learned to never give up hope,” said the eighth-grader from East Brunswick. Another classmate, Binyamin Davis of Edison, 12, thought Rudolph had “a really good message” about judging others who are different from yourself. “People all around the world should know segregation does not belong anywhere anymore,” said the eighth-grader. “Everyone should be treated equally.”
Head of school Rabbi Daniel Loew told the students, “We heard an incredible message that she brought us today, which is really Dr. King’s message.”