Carolyn McKinstry remembers the morning clearly.
Five girls were in the basement ladies room at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. It was youth Sunday – a day for the young people of the church to sing, usher and read announcements. The pastor was preparing his sermon on a verse from the book of Luke, the one in which Christ on the cross asks forgiveness for his executioners.
The girls of the church were excited to be forming a new church club that would meet the afternoon of Sept. 15, 1963. The girls were going to order caps and T-shirts.
“They were in there combing their hair, doing what girls do,” said McKinstry. “I said hello.”
At 15 years old, she was just a girl herself. She hurried upstairs to the church sanctuary to deliver the weekly Sunday school report.
At 10:22 a.m., a bomb exploded – stopping the church clock and propelling McKinstry and others from Birmingham’s largest black church into the civil rights movement that would change America.
Four of the girls in the ladies room, ages 11 through 14, died: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. A fifth – Addie Mae’s 12-year-old sister Sarah – was hospitalized for months and blinded in one eye by flying glass.
“The windows came crashing in,” McKinstry remembers.
McKinstry will be in Tacoma Monday to share her story at the University of Washington Tacoma’s Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast.
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was a galvanizing moment in the 1960s civil rights struggle. The church was targeted because it had been a meeting place for King and other civil rights leaders.
“It was a warning to people to stop what you are doing,” McKinstry said. “It was meant to intimidate and frighten.”
The dynamite that exploded that Sunday morning was not the first manifestation of racial hatred in Birmingham. It wasn’t even the first bombing.
At the time, she said, there were more than 80 unsolved bombings of churches, homes or businesses of people of color.
“We could sit on the porch, and you could hear the boom,” she said. “It would almost feel like the earth shook.”
Then the phone would ring as word spread about the latest incident.
In 1964, she and her family survived a bomb that blasted a large part of their own home.
It wasn’t until 14 years after the church bombing that one of three conspirators, Robert Chambliss, was found guilty of the crime. He died in prison in 1985. Two others, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, were also convicted and given prison sentences. McKinstry was subpoenaed as a witness in Cherry’s 2002 trial.
McKinstry remembers King had visited her church in the spring before the bombing. He returned afterwards, to deliver a eulogy for the martyred girls.
“We didn’t see him the way people see him now,” she said, referring to King’s national historic stature.
They held him in high esteem for traditional reasons.
“We were taught that the most important person in a community is the minister,” she said. “We saw him as someone we had to respect.”
McKinstry said she struggled with depression for years after the bombing. It was an era when people didn’t talk about the effects of living through a traumatic event.
In the 1960s, she joined civil rights marches and a boycott of Birmingham department stores that had racist policies.
“During that time, you were labeled a troublemaker,” she said. “We didn’t have any idea history would be so kind.”
She married, raised her family, worked in business management for some major corporations, and moved around to several cities before returning to her native Birmingham.
She volunteered in a long list of social-justice organizations, including the Alabama Poverty Project and Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative. Now at age 65, she travels the world promoting peace and justice. Her latest visit took her to Israel. In 2011, she published her memoir, “While the World Watched.”
She served for 10 years on the board of the 16th Street Baptist Church and helped launch a fundraising campaign to restore the building. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
But a portion of the structure – the basement space where innocent blood was spilled – remains closed to prying eyes.
“When we repaired the church, we sealed off the space where it happened,” McKinstry said. “We didn’t want the memory. We put a wall there.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635