While the World Watched
Carolyn Maull McKinstry and the Birmingham Bombings
By Timothy George
It was called “The Magic City,” “The Pittsburgh of the South” (because rich ore deposits had led to the development of a strong steel industry), the most segregated city in the country. After 1948, Birmingham, Alabama was increasingly called “Bombingham.” That was the year several African-American families moved into a hitherto whites-only neighborhood called Smithville, soon to become known as “Dynamite Hill.” Dynamite was readily available in Birmingham due to the large mining operations in the area. Throughout the fifties and sixties, local Ku Klux Klan leaders bombed black churches, black schools, and the homes of “uppity” blacks who had dared to cross the Klan-drawn color line.
Nineteen forty-eight was also the year Carolyn Maull McKinstry was born. She was one of six children. Her beloved grandfather, the Reverend Ernest Walter Burt, was a devoted Baptist pastor. From the beginning, church was a key part of Carolyn’s life. She was baptized as a young teenager at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church—a historic black congregation that had arisen nearly a century before from the ashes of slavery and the Civil War. Ascending from the church’s baptismal waters, she looked directly into the face of Jesus, beautifully depicted in the large stained glass window on the eastern side of the sanctuary. His countenance made her feel safe and loved.
At Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Carolyn met Dr. Martin Luther King, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and other key leaders in the 1960s struggle for civil rights. She participated in the mass meetings held in her church sanctuary, which could seat 1200 persons. Inspired by King’s preaching, she joined the “Children’s March” and faced the fire hoses and German Shepherds of the infamous Birmingham public safety commissioner, Bull Connor. She joined others in singing:
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,
Turn me around, turn me around.
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,
Keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking.
Gonna build a brand new world.
It was gray and overcast on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963. Some rain had fallen in the night, but no one knew that the heavens would weep again before the day was done. It was “Youth Sunday” at the church, and Pastor John Cross had announced that he would preach a sermon titled “A Love that Forgives” based on the Gospel text in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Carolyn Maull, 14, the Sunday School secretary, hurried to fulfill her responsibilities. She greeted visitors, counted Sunday School offerings, and reported the day’s attendance. In the brief interval between Sunday School and the morning worship service, Carolyn stopped by the girls’ restroom and spoke to her friends, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Denise McNair, who was 11. She left the restroom, walked up the stairs to the church office, and answered the ringing phone. A man’s voice said simply: “Three minutes.” He hung up.
Carolyn felt confused. She walked into the sanctuary, where the clock hanging on the wall indicated that the time was 10:22 a.m. Then she heard the blast. Boom! For a second, she thought it was thunder or a lightning strike. Then she realized—it must be a bomb. She vividly remembers two things from that horror-filled moment: the sound of feet scurrying past her to get to the exits, and looking up at the stained glass window—the same one that had brought her such comfort when she looked into the face of Jesus at her baptism. The window was still intact . . . all except the face. Jesus’ beautiful face was gone.
Three days later, on Wednesday, September 18, some six thousand people gathered for the funeral of Carolyn’s friends, “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and dignity,” as Martin Luther King called them. As the world watched, King reached deep into his profound Christian faith. He called for justice and counseled hope:
And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. The Holy Scripture says, ‘A little child shall lead them.’ These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color.
For Carolyn, the brutal killing of her friends and the bombing of her church would leave deep scars. She spent many years looking over her shoulder. “Will I be next?” she wondered. This thought was reinforced when, one year after the church bombing, her next door neighbors’ house was bombed and the windows in her own bedroom shattered.
And there was another question that haunted her: “Why were my friends taken and not me? Had I lingered just a minute or so more in the restroom that morning. . . .” After many years, Carolyn came to the conviction that she had been spared by God in order to bear witness and to become a living proof of Dr. King’s thesis: that out of deep suffering and pain, hope is born and resurrection happens.
That did not come about quickly or easily in Carolyn’s case. For many years, she could not bear to tell the story she could not forget. She lived in a culture of silence. No one spoke about the bombing or its aftereffects, just as no one said the word cancer, lest the very utterance make it real. Carolyn grieved inside, alone. She struggled for years with depression and alcoholism. But healing happened. Gradually. “But gradually, step by step,” she says, “I felt the Spirit of the Lord upon me.”
Years later, the wound was reopened, when, in 2001, courts in Birmingham subpoenaed Carolyn to testify in the long-delayed trial of one of the bombers, Bobby Frank Cherry. “After the trial was over,” Carolyn said, “by God’s grace, I chose to forgive Cherry, and all the others that lived lives of hate. It was the difficult road, but it’s also the road to ultimate freedom.”
Today, the Reverend Dr. Carolyn Maull McKinstry is an apostle of racial reconciliation, Christian unity, and human rights. Five years ago, she was awarded the master of divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School. This past spring she received a doctoral degree honoris causa from Samford University.
This coming Sunday, September 15, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the bomb that shook the church and changed the world. The theme for the service will once again be “A Love that Forgives.” The clock on the wall has been left as it was at the moment of the bombing, a lasting reminder of what happened fifty years ago at 10:22 a.m. But the face of Jesus in the church window, shattered by hate fifty years ago, has since been restored, so that the Savior looks down in mercy and love once again.
Originally published at First Things On the Square, September 9, 2013.
is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chairman of the board of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Carolyn Maull McKinstry (with collaborator Denise George) has written her story in a recent book, While the World Watched,
published by Tyndale House Publishers. Listen to Timothy George’s interview with the Reverend Arthur Price, Jr
., the current pastor of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, on the Beeson Podcast.