Local News

February 28, 2014

‘We can learn to love each other’

Students hear firsthand account of ‘63 Birmingham church bombing

by — “No one has ever been mean to me because of my skin,” Maria Rodriguez, a seventh-grader from New Hope Middle School, said on Friday. “No one has tried to kill my family because of my skin.”

But Rodriguez wonders if that would be the case had she been born 50 years earlier. Being the target of violence based on race was a reality for Carolyn Maull McKinstry, who was inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 14, 1963, when a member of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church, killing four young African-American girls.

McKinstry spoke to Whitfield County Schools students Friday at the Crosspointe Christian Centre in Dalton, giving them a firsthand account of race-driven violence.

“I had passed those girls in the bathroom, had gone up to the stairs and when I got to the top of the steps a phone rang in the office and I answered the phone,” McKinstry recalled. “There was no one in that office. So I answered. And a person said, ‘Three minutes.’ And as quickly as they said that they hung up.”

McKinstry, 14 at the time, put the call out of her mind. Roughly three minutes later, the meaning of the message became clear when a box of dynamite on a timer, reportedly placed under the exterior stairs of the church by members of the United Klans of America, exploded.

“I heard people scream, saw the glass come crashing in. It was really frightening. Really frightening,” McKinstry said. “And the first thing I thought about was that I had two little brothers who had come to Sunday school. And I thought, ‘Where are they?’”

McKinstry reunited with her brothers and family at the church, but her four friends — Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14 — died in the blast.

“I got another phone call later that day telling me that the girls had never made it out of the bathroom,” she said. “I learned my friends were gone, that they were dead.”

From then on, McKinstry said she lived in a world of fear with the haunting idea of “Who’s next?” constantly in her head as some resistance to the civil rights movement grew more violent toward the end of the 1960s.

“There was another bombing across the street where I lived,” she told the students.

Richardo Emanuel of North Whitfield Middle School said he can’t “imagine living like that.”

“My mom and dad say white people don’t always understands us,” he said. “I’m from Mexico and so I’m different. My parents say we’re different from white people. But I’ve never been bombed. I have white friends. Not everyone is mean like that.”

McKinstry said she believes most people can be “reconciled” with each other despite differences of race and culture.

“I have one central message for everybody and that is that we can learn to love each other, we can learn to forgive each other and be reconciled together,” she said. “That means we have harmony between us. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we can respect each other. We can respect our differences and our different points of view.”

Anything short of that ideal is wrong in the eyes of God, McKinstry told the students.

“The diversity that we share in our world, whether we are talking about food or animals or cultures or people, all diversity was created by God,” she said. “We didn’t create anything. And if we don’t like some part of his creation, I think we are saying to God, ‘You made a mistake.’ ... We’re telling him he made a mistake.”

Rodriguez agrees.

“You can’t say something God does is wrong,” she said. “He’s perfect. Jesus is perfect and if Jesus made me then I’m part of his creation.”

Tyler Jordon, another seventh-grader from New Hope, said he takes the lyrics of the classic children’s hymn “Jesus Loves the Little Children” to heart.

“God loves all,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be mean to people because they are different. And people aren’t supposed to be mean to me because I’m not like them.”

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