Photo credit: Vanderbilt Studios – Sarah Collins Rudolph shares her story of survival to over 500 students at Thurgood Marshall High School.
By Micole Williams and Andrea Henderson
Sarah Collins Rudolph remembers September 15, 1963 like it was yesterday. She and her sister and three other girls were in the restroom of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. when a bomb was set off that changed their lives forever.
Songs, films, medals and school lessons have been dedicated to the four little girls – Addie Mae, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair who 51 years ago lost their lives in an act of terrorism executed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The bombing would make national and international headlines and serve as a pivotal turning point in the Civil Rights Movement which later contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
However, little attention has been focused on Sarah Jean Collins (now Sarah Collins Rudolph), the fifth little girl and sole survivor of the church bombing, who has spent the last 50-plus years working to pick up the pieces of a life that was shattered by hatred.
Before the bombing, “I was just the average little girl.”
Rudolph recalls days in church filled with “bible school…Easter eggs hunts and out of town swimming.” Then, boom, all of that changed.
“All the games and this kind of playing stopped – I had to grow up fast,” Rudolph continues. “I had to really be concerned about my appearance more than anything else…I had lost an eye, and the other eye wasn’t too good.”
However, her vision was not the only thing that was shattered. Her heart was shattered because she lost her sister in the bombing that day. Her mind was shattered because of the physical injuries she suffered and the destructive imprint the bombing left on her psyche.
With the bombing playing in the backdrop of her mind daily, moving on with her life was challenging for Sarah. She couldn’t depend on her mother or sister for encouragement because they were dealing with their own grief.
The aftermath of the bombing left her nerves frazzled, and for some time, she felt like things were crawling on her at night. It was proposed to Sarah that she get post-traumatic counseling. In Birmingham, she did receive it, but said, “it wasn’t doing me any good.”
Inevitably, she had to come to terms with her wounded reality. “At first, for years, I was angry, but I had to learn how to forgive and I couldn’t keep living that way, being angry, because I know anger can make you sick,” she admits.
When asked did she ever lose her faith, without hesitation, she answers. “I called on Jesus…couldn’t call on momma, she couldn’t help me…,” she said.
“God heals,” said Rudolph.
Life Moves On
In more ways than one, Sarah has lived with being the 5th wheel of this tragedy. But being a woman of faith, keeps her miraculously moving forward. Her story is a prime example of why it is our responsibility to tell our stories. Who else will?
Today, at the age of 63, Rudolph, still lives in Birmingham where the unthinkable tragedy shook the nation. With a few statues in museums and parks, a galore of certificates, Sarah swept her childhood dream of becoming a nurse aside and worked as a maid trying to pick up the pieces of her life and carry on.
In 2013, President Barack Obama’s signed a bill to posthumously award a Congressional Gold Medal in honor of her sister and the three other girls who lost their lives.
Although, God has helped her to forgive the perpetrators of the vile act, Rudolph desires more than a medal to compensate for the bombing.
“I told him I don’t need another medal, I need help,” she said of her response to the President’s action.
The moment Tammie Lang Campbell, the executive director of the Honey Brown Hope Foundation, heard Rudolph’s story she felt compelled to help her pick up the pieces to her life and assist her with coming out of the shadows of the bombing.
“When my daughter read to me an article in the New York Times about the Civil Rights Act, I didn’t know about Sarah we had only heard about the four little girls,” Campbell said. “From there, I said, we were going to help Sarah.”
Campbell reached out to a number of Houston notables to assist with the Eye on The Prize: Celebrating 50th Anniversary of the Civic Rights Act gala held at the Power Center on Oct. 18. The gala honored Rudolph for her courage and Texas State Representative Senfronia Thompson for her commitment to the state of Texas in assisting with political and social efforts that promote equality. Thompson encouraged Rudolph to tell her story and to persuade youth to never give up.
A state victim’s restitution fund did not exist when Rudolph met with tragedy in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, but through her Foundation, Campbell proved that it is never too late to make a difference. The night of the gala, $11,000 of the proceeds raised from the event were donated to Rudolph.
The Honey Brown Hope Foundation has been instrumental in righting social, cultural and racial injustices and helping young people access their dreams and accomplish their goals through mentoring and education.
Campbell also called on a Houston-area clinical psychologist, Dr. Janice Beal, to help Rudolph process the physical and mental trauma she experienced in the aftermath of the bombings.
According to Beal, fewer African Americans and other minority groups seek help for mental health issues.
“So I feel great about being able to work with her and help with the healing process. There are so many people suffering from mental health concerns that go untreated for years. I am sure that the trauma that she experienced has affected her life,” said Beal.
Because of the distance, Beal will conduct weekly Skype counseling sessions with Rudolph, and as progress is made, sessions will be scheduled bimonthly.
“In the event that I feel some additional intervention may be needed I would seek someone in her city to assist with the case,” said Beal of her commitment to Rudolph’s recovery.
A Texas Southern University graduate, Beal earned a doctorate of education degree in guidance and counseling/psychology and a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and has more than 20 years of professional experience as a clinician treating the emotional needs of children and adolescents.
In accepting Beal’s assistance, Rudolph has taken a step toward minimizing the stigma of seeking psychological counseling that exists in the African American community and sends the message that it is never too late to reach out for help to heal.
“When tragic things happen to our people, it’s our responsibility to take a stand and help,” Campbell said.
Campbell considers it a privilege and honor to have played a role in giving hope to Rudolph, however, the Honey Brown Hope Foundation founder believes in the saying that “together we can do more” and challenges others in the community to take a stand to do what they can to instill hope.
For more information, contact the Honey Brown Hope Foundation at 281-499-7966.
Sarah Collins Rudolph – The “Fifth” Little Girl