August 8, 2003
Since her seventh-grade year, Carolyn McKinstry (born Maul), also 14 and a friend of all four victims, had enjoyed the responsibility of volunteer junior church secretary at the 16th Street church. A few months prior to the bombing, she was working in the church office when she heard singing and fiery speeches. Peeking through the sanctuary door, she found the balcony and main floor filled with children.
"I watched and made a decision," she says. "It felt good. I wanted to be a part of it. I walked out and took a seat in the audience. It wasn't anything I'd really planned ... . Our parents sheltered us a lot. We didn't know what was going on unless they put it on TV or you heard someone say it. But once we sat in those meetings ... ."
The next 40 years of Carolyn's life would be molded by that decision to "be a part of it." In those meetings, she heard people like the Rev. Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Bevel, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. "As a kid, I felt in awe of these people who thought we could actually be part of making a difference," she says.
Even though young, she says, "most of us understood the White Only signs, we understood that we couldn't use any public facilities, swimming pools, restaurants, restrooms. We could not work in most places around town. Nor could we try on clothes in the department stores. We understood we were trying to change all of that. Most of the time, kids are told to go to the back room or somewhere else, but someone thought we could help, and I was very proud of that."
In June of that year, Carolyn had been at Kelly Ingram Park when Public Safety Commissioner "Bull" Connor turned his men and dogs loose on protesters there. Four months later, though, the young girl's mind was not on protest but on her church responsibilities. She left her Sunday School class early, pausing to speak briefly to her girlfriends combing their hair in the women's restroom lounge. Then she made her way upstairs to deliver the attendance records and offerings. Just as she reached the top of the second flight, the office telephone rang. She went in, picked up the receiver and said, "Hello, 16th Street Baptist Church." A male voice on the other end said, "Three minutes" and then hung up.
Bewildered, she left the office and descended the steps toward the sanctuary. Immediately, a huge percussion shook the church. Stained-glass windows shattered, the floors and pews rocked. Then an eerie silence fell. At first, the dazed Carolyn didn't realize what had happened. It would be years before she allowed herself to remember the false countdown announced so tersely by a murderer. Three minutes proved inaccurate; in fact, it was more like 15 seconds.
Those initial moments after the detonation have been rehashed many times now. The images of the dead girls' sweet, open faces and the coroner's photographs of their mutilated -- in one case decapitated -- bodies are imprinted on the public consciousness, their story displayed in the glass specimen cases of museums and retold in films, books and articles. Four lives, quenched at the brink of maturity, have become the symbolic legacy of hatred and remorse that finally helped desegregate the South. But for Carolyn, who would do the growing and maturing into womanhood denied her four friends, four decades have stifled neither the explosion's sound nor her determination to fulfill the life she feels God spared her to live.
"The point at which I developed some real fear," she says, "was when, approximately seven months later, they bombed a house across the street from where I lived. It went off at three in the morning. It tore up all the houses across the street. My brothers had two sets of bunk beds. The younger ones, who were sleeping on top, were thrown to the floor from the force ... . Everything lit up like it was daylight for probably five seconds."
She heard people screaming in the street, calling for help. Three blocks away stood the homes of "Dynamite" Robert Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry, two Klansmen who would, 14 and 39 years later, respectively, be convicted for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. It always has been suspected they also planted this bomb.
"For probably 20 years after that night, I walked around with a lot of fear," Carolyn says. "I had the sense that I was not safe, that my parents couldn't protect me. I also had the sense that, sooner or later, I wasn't going to be as lucky as I had been. I wasn't killed in the church, I wasn't killed in the neighborhood, but sooner or later, there would be one I wouldn't get away from."
Through her mid-20s, she suffered from depression, nervous skin rashes and a fear of loud noises. She slept constantly, calling sleep "her hiding place." She kept herself emotionally disengaged and distant. Married, she gave birth to a daughter at age 22, but didn't realize until later that, "my older daughter never smiled because I never did."
"I didn't let anyone get close to me, I didn't bond with my daughter, my husband, or my mom because it hurt," she says. She had learned early: In her world, loss was too great a possibility. "From the time it happened until after I graduated from college and married, we never talked about the bombing," she says. In Birmingham's black community, the expectation of stoic endurance and silent suffering always has been reflexive; the relentless conditioning of centuries of punishment died hard.
But when Carolyn was 25, her husband came home from work at 10:30 one morning and found her sitting at the table, a drink in her hand, their two daughters playing nearby. She was on the phone talking to a suicide hot-line worker. "Why are you talking to them?" her startled husband asked. "I don't know. I just wanted to talk to somebody," she replied. Although not suicidal, Carolyn felt such a deep need to find a safe venue in which she could relieve her feelings that she'd chosen this resort; no other hot lines or refuges for such discussion existed back then, and the isolating silence drove her sense of desperation. Eleven years after the bombings, it finally occurred to her that there was a relationship between them and her various symptoms.
"That was the day I made a decision: I can keep on hating to wake up in the morning, or I can enjoy these two beautiful babies I have and my wonderful husband," she recalls.
The next year, Carolyn got a teaching job. She later took a position at BellSouth, where she worked for 25 years training managers before joining the staff of Accenture in the same capacity. Additionally, she works for the Children's Defense Fund and is on the regional advisory board of the Southern Rural Women's Initiative, traveling all over the world for meetings with disenfranchised women, building their self-esteem and empowering them to believe in their self-sufficiency. She also is chair of the board of trustees for 16th Street Baptist Church, which she still attends.
Today, Carolyn reflects on that period in her life. "There are a lot of things people don't know about what happened in Birmingham." When the justice system decided to prosecute in 1977, the memories Carolyn thought she had put away surged to the surface.
"Reporters would come to town and ask very direct questions: 'Did you see their bodies? What did those girls look like?' And that's the point at which we kind of started going crazy and reliving all of it," she says. "I had put the voice on the phone out of my head. We'd tried very hard to forget, and all of a sudden, there it was again."
She goes on to say that on Sept. 15, 1993, when the 16th Street church planned the 30th Anniversary Memorial of the four girls' deaths, someone called in a bomb threat to the church. The service was held, although attendance was sadly diminished by fear. Even then, the community preferred not to openly discuss its continued victimization. But later, in 2002, Carolyn was subpoenaed for the trial of Bob Cherry. Waiting to testify, she and her police escort were put in a holding room with Cherry's two grandsons and their pastor. "I was sick for three weeks after that. I was having anxiety attacks, I felt sick to my stomach, I lost my appetite. On the witness stand, I sat directly opposite Bob Cherry, who stared at me very arrogantly, as if to say he was going to walk out of there, like he was making fun.
"If anyone had told me that would have been a problem for me, I wouldn't have believed it. I thought I was over it. I guess that was the telling moment -- being forced to go to that courtroom. After he got convicted, it was like the end of a bad dream, when you wake up.
"I used to say to students, 'This story has no ending. We all went to church one Sunday. Four of our friends were killed. And that's just where it stops.' Now I can say, even though it's 40 years later, 'Three of the folks suspected of being part of that, the only three still surviving, were found guilty.' But we still have to continue the fight."