April 11, 2013
By JAY REEVES
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The lone survivor of a 1963 Alabama church bombing that killed four black girls said Wednesday she wants millions in compensation for her injuries and won't accept a top congressional award proposed to honor the victims.
Sarah Collins Rudolph, in an interview with The Associated Press, said she feels forgotten 50 years after the blast shocked the nation. Rudolph lost an eye in the Sept. 16, 1963 bombing at Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and says she never got restitution.
“We haven’t received anything, and I lost an eye,” said Rudolph, who lives north of Birmingham. “They just want to throw a medal at us.”
Congress is considering whether to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the four girls who died: 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. Addie Mae was the sister of Rudolph, who was 12 at the time and was in a downstairs washroom with the four girls when the blast occurred. At least two dozen others were injured.
The brother of Cynthia Wesley said he isn’t interested in the award either and wants compensation, partly because history didn’t even record his sister's name correctly.
U.S. Reps. Terri Sewell, a Democrat, and Spencer Bachus, a Republican, announced a bipartisan effort in January to award the medal to the church bombing victims. The medal represents the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow. Recipients have ranged from George Washington to civil rights figure Rosa Parks, Pope John Paul II and “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz.
The church bombing shocked the nation and was a galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement.
The five girls were preparing for Sunday services in the washroom near the wall where the bomb was planted outside.
It was more than a decade before any successful prosecutions were brought in the case.
Juries convicted three Ku Klux Klansmen in the bombing years later, and one suspected accomplice died without ever having been charged; one of the four is still in prison and the others are dead.
But Rudolph said she still hasn’t gotten justice like other crime victims who receive restitution payments.
“My sister was killed and I lost my eye. Why should I be any different?” said Rudolph, who says she still suffers from painful memories, physical scars and posttraumatic stress syndrome.
Rudolph said she wants compensation “in the millions” for her injuries and the death of Addie Mae, but she hasn’t settled on an exact amount.
Fate Morris said he also will refuse the medal and wants compensation like Rudolph for the death of his sister, typically referred to as Cynthia Wesley. Morris said her real name was Cynthia Morris, and no medal will replace the mistake.
“It’s a smoke screen to shut us up and make us go away so we’ll never be heard from again,” Morris told AP.
Morris said his sister was staying with a family named “Wesley” at the time of the bombing to get into a good school, but she still came back to the Morris household on weekends. Authorities mistakenly recorded her last name as “Wesley” and never fixed the error, he said, until the family sought an amended death certificate decades later.
Morris said he vividly recalls hearing the blast that morning and running to the church with friends to help dig through the rubble. He remembers people calling out about finding bodies amid broken bricks but said he left in fear before his sister’s remains were found.
Morris, sobbing during an interview, said a friend told him moments later that Cynthia’s decapitated remains had been found. He said he’s never shaken the pain.
“I left her buried in a pile of bricks. That’s all I could think of,” he said through tears.
Stephanie Engle, an activist who is publicizing the families’ push for compensation, said victims of the bombing deserve reparation just like Japanese Americans who received payments through a $1.6 billion program decades after being held in internment camps during World War II.
Birmingham’s entire Jim Crow structure of racial segregation created a climate of fear and hate that resulted in the girls’ deaths, she said. Engle said “medals, statues, and ‘pomp-and-circumstance ceremonies’ are not a substitution for justice, moral, and historical accountability.”
Press aides to Sewell and Bachus did not return messages seeking comment on the status of the legislation for the medals.
The Alabama Crime Victims’ Compensation Commission helps crime victims and families with expenses stemming from a crime, but Executive Director Cassie Jones said state law does not allow it to address crimes that occurred before the agency was created in 1984. She said it doesn’t matter if the conviction occurred after 1984, as happened in this case. “We are not able to compensate anyone where there was a crime before it became an agency,” she said.
She said the Justice Department has a program to assist crime victims, but she doesn’t know how far back it can go.
Robert Sedler, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who has litigated major civil rights cases, said Congress has the power to approve compensation to victims such as Rudolph.
“These people are victims of a long and tragic history of racial discrimination in the southern states and Congress on behalf of the people can provide compensation for the victims,” he said.
As for the church bombing victims and families, Sedler said their argument is strengthened by the fact that Alabama authorities were nor protecting the rights of blacks at the time. He noted that Birmingham’s public safety commissioner then was the notoriously racist Bull Connor.
“Violence was encouraged,” he said. “Local law enforcement officials did not enforce the law to protect minority rights... The people who blew up the church, they believed that they could do it with impunity.”
The viciousness of the bombing drew national attention to Birmingham, where authorities used fire hoses and police dogs to turn back black marchers months earlier the same year. Congress passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act within a year of the bombing, which came to symbolize the depth of racial hatred in the South.
Rudolph’s comments come a week after Alabama lawmakers address another major episode in civil rights history. Legislators voted to allow posthumous pardons for the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine black teens who were wrongly convicted of raping two white women more than 80 years ago.