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Siblings of the bombing: Remembering Birmingham church blast 50 years on

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
updated 11:30 AM EDT, Tue September 17, 2013
The 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, was a fixture in the civil rights movement -- even more so after a bombing there on September 15, 1963, killed four girls. The 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, was a fixture in the civil rights movement -- even more so after a bombing there on September 15, 1963, killed four girls.
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
Legacy of Birmingham's 'four little girls'
  • Four girls were killed in a Birmingham church bombing 50 years ago Sunday
  • Their siblings' lives were shaped by the events of that day in profoundly different ways
  • Two grew up in the shadow of a girl they never knew, another was adopted to fill a void
  • One would never move back home; another sister survived -- and struggles

Birmingham, Alabama (CNN) -- Fifty years have passed since a bomb stopped the old sanctuary clock in Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, locking in a moment that would change a nation.

The four girls killed in the blast have been honored as civil rights martyrs, their names etched in history books.

But what of their siblings, including one who barely survived?

For the brothers and sisters of the four girls, it was an event that would rock their foundations and shape their lives. Some would go on to promote understanding and equality. Others still struggle, fighting the past half a century later.

Scattered across three states, they share an unthinkable tragedy. But they've moved through the world and made sense of the nonsensical in profoundly different ways.

It was 10:22 a.m. on Sunday, September 15, 1963, when a stack of dynamite hidden beneath an outside staircase by Ku Klux Klansmen left a massive hole and crater in one side of the church. The blast blew out windows, filled the place with dust and debris, and destroyed a ladies restroom in the basement -- killing the four girls and injuring nearly two dozen people.

Even before the bombing, the church -- in the heart of the city's black community -- had been a backdrop to the civil rights movement. It had drawn high-profile visitors, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It became a perfect spot for meetings, sitting catty-corner from Kelly Ingram Park, a staging ground for marches. Chilling photographs of young people being attacked with fire hoses and by dogs show the church steps in the background.

A grieving relative is led away from the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. Four black girls were killed and at least 14 others were injured, sparking riots and a national outcry. A grieving relative is led away from the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. Four black girls were killed and at least 14 others were injured, sparking riots and a national outcry.
1963 Birmingham church bombing
Photos: 1963 Birmingham church bombing Photos: 1963 Birmingham church bombing
50th anniversary of church bombing

Bombs in this Southern city weren't new. The nickname "Bombingham" was earned for good reason. By the time this one hit, there had been scores of unsolved -- and uninvestigated -- bombings in the city, says Carolyn Maull McKinstry, 65, who was in the church that day.

Explosions were part of life, part of the landscape, and could be heard from her family's front porch, says McKinstry, who was friends with the four girls and wrote about the bombing in "While the World Watched." Sometimes the blasts would make the earth move.

"Terrorism is not new to us," she says from a room inside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the historic church. Her community knew terrorism -- and, she adds, figures like Trayvon Martin -- long before the world did.

This attack upped the tensions and the ante. It killed innocent children in a sacred space, which helped make it the bomb heard around the world. It happened a couple weeks after the March on Washington, as those who didn't share King's dream dug in their segregationist heels.

It would be more than a decade before an ounce of justice was served. One suspect was convicted for murder and slapped with a life sentence after the case was reopened in the 1970s. Two others wouldn't pay until 2000 and 2001, after the case was reopened a second time. By then, a fourth suspect had died and would never face the court.

The bombing ignited horror and change. It was a pivotal moment that helped prod the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Killed that morning as they primped after Sunday school class were Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, all 14.

They have been remembered in films, books and songs. They've been memorialized in plaques, statues and artwork. Their headstones include phrases like "martyr," "She died so freedom might live," and "She loved all -- but a mad bomber hated her kind."

Earlier this week, in the U.S. Capitol, they were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Among those accepting the honor were surviving siblings, all with stories of their own.

One pair of sisters, born after the bombing, grew up in the shadow of a figure they longed to know. Another, already grown and out of the house when she got the news, would guard her identity and never move back South.

Another sister was adopted by a victim's family to help fill a void, while that victim's biological brother still struggles to find where he fits in.

And then there's the sister who was with the four girls that day. She was horribly injured, physically and in spirit, her anger and sense of injustice still palpable.

Photos of Denise McNair, center, her parents and the sisters she never knew.
Photos of Denise McNair, center, her parents and the sisters she never knew.
Kendrick Brinson/Getty Images for CNN

In her shadow

It was surreal, weird, sometimes confusing to grow up in the shadow of an iconic, almost mythical spirit. When ladies in the community would hug them a little too tight or long, or cling to their hands and say they were praying for them, the McNair girls didn't know what to make of the attention.

They knew their sister Denise had died at their church in a bombing and that it was a significant event in history, but their parents refused to share details. Any questions they had were given one- or two-word answers. Maybe it hurt too much to talk about the past. Their father would later say he didn't want to push it in their faces.

"Relatives said Daddy didn't cry for six months, maybe a year," says Lisa, who was born a year and four days after the bombing.

"If he did, he did it where we didn't see it," says their mother.

Kimberly, born four years after Lisa, says she was 8 when the ugly truth began to come out. They were visiting their grandmother; after someone mentioned Denise, the older woman fetched and opened a mysterious box.

From inside, she pulled the chunk of concrete that had been lodged in Denise's head. Her shoes, her purse, the drops she had used that day for her allergies. Their mother sat by and cried while the girls sat spellbound and listened.

"She felt we needed to know," says Kimberly, "because it was a part of us, too."

But it wouldn't be until their parents were interviewed by Spike Lee for his Academy Award-nominated 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls," that the McNair sisters fully understood. Everything their parents had kept to themselves came out. As Kimberly puts it, the film made Denise "three-dimensional." Their father would travel to different cities to attend the film's premieres and sob at every one of them. It was, they believe, the purge he'd so desperately needed. Now, whenever the sisters see the film, they start crying as soon as the opening credits roll.

Their mother, Maxine, was in the church's choir loft when the bomb exploded. She jumped up to try to find her daughter, not knowing she was buried in the rubble. She wouldn't see Denise again until, at the hospital, she and her husband later identified their only child's lifeless body.

"I couldn't stop screaming for several days," Maxine says. "They had to give me an injection to calm my nerves."

The couple, who had tried to have more children ever since Denise was born, came home to silence.

That they had another daughter almost exactly a year later, and then another, felt like a miracle.

Today, Lisa and Kimberly look at their mother with awe and admiration.

"No one would have blamed her if she'd crawled into bed and cried for the rest of her life," says Lisa. "Mama said a minister friend of hers told her, 'Maxine, God has a divine plan, and you just have to follow it.'"

As an evening summer storm pounds the living-room skylights in the Birmingham-area home the family shares, their rescue dog Banjo vies for lap space.

Maxine, now 85 and suffering from Alzheimer's, swats the mutt away -- "Get that thing on the floor." She closes her eyes but never stops listening. As the conversation turns to what Denise might have been, Maxine's eyes open.

"She would have been awesome," says Lisa, who remembers stories of Denise standing up for others. "A doctor or lawyer or politician."

"I think she would have left Birmingham. I just think she would have been adventurous," says Kimberly. "And I'm sure she would have given my parents the grandchildren they wanted."

"We have granddogs," says Lisa, giving Banjo a squeeze.

"You two are crazy!" Maxine howls with laughter.

Her face then turns serious for a minute as she reflects on her firstborn, a child she lost 50 years ago and one she does not forget, even as her mind fades.

"She wasn't going to let the world pass her by."

Her other daughters came of age in a time unlike Denise's. Their world was more integrated. They reaped the benefits of their sister's sacrifice.

Kimberly McNair Brock is now married, 44, and serves as their mother's primary caretaker. She's also a chef focused on holistic nutrition.

Lisa, 48, is single and works for a nonprofit that uses animals to help people heal.

While they didn't feel they had to live their lives for the sister they lost, Kimberly says she felt like she was born without anonymity -- and with eyes trained on her.

"People knew about me before I got here," she says. "You were already measured before anyone gave you an opportunity to be who you were."

She also says she has gravitated to women about 17 years her senior, the same age Denise would have been if she was still alive -- an unconscious effort to fill a void.

The sisters feel a duty to honor Denise's legacy. They participate in Sojourn to the Past, a program that teaches high school students about the civil rights movement. They are also active in a scholarship fund established in the four girls' memory -- "giving people the chance to do what they couldn't," says Lisa.

What's more, they know it's on them to speak.

For most of their adult lives, their father, Chris McNair, served as the family spokesman. But the longtime county commissioner, now 87, was convicted in 2006 for accepting bribes and then suffered a stroke. He was recently released after serving two years in a federal prison medical facility.

Along the way, Lisa and Kimberly learned to step up. What happened to their sister, to their family, is a piece of American history they must own.

Even though they never knew Denise, it is the sisters' story to tell.

Lisa and Maxine McNair, Dianne Robertson Braddock (L-R) watch the president approve posthumous medals.
Lisa and Maxine McNair, Dianne Robertson Braddock (L-R) watch the president approve honors.
Mike Theiler/Getty Images

'More of a diplomat than me'

She could have had her own room after their older brother went off to college, but Dianne Robertson chose to stay put in the bedroom she shared with her little sister, Carole. The two, five years apart, would listen to the radio at night. It was the late 1950s, and rock 'n' roll had taken hold.

"She knew all the songs," Dianne says. "'In the Still of the Night,' she really liked that one."

Outside, Carole often tagged along with Dianne and her friends. At the movie theater, the younger girl would look on in horror as Dianne and the others got into what she calls "all sorts of devilment" -- like tossing ice and popcorn from the upper balcony, where blacks were relegated, onto the white folks below. When their boyfriends would put their arms around the teenage girls, Carole would gasp and say, "I'm gonna tell Mama!"

"That's what we all remember. She was everyone's little sister," Dianne says. "We'd have to bribe her to not tell our parents."

The Robertsons, both educators, groomed their children to achieve. The family lived in a tight-knit community rich with black role models: business owners, lawyers, doctors, preachers and teachers. On Sundays, after dinner, the family would go on drives and admire the big, beautiful homes in white-only neighborhoods. Going to college and shooting for dreams was a given.

But where they came from was far from perfect. Their neighborhood in Birmingham was dubbed "Dynamite Hill" because there were so many explosions. Her parents shielded them from much of the ugliness. The kids were never allowed out at night alone. Rather than letting them take buses, where they'd feel the indignity of sitting in the back, their parents insisted on driving them.

No amount of sheltering, though, could keep them in the dark. Dianne remembers eavesdropping as her mom griped with friends. They resented spending their good money downtown and not being able to try on shoes or clothes at stores that reserved those conveniences for whites only. They knew the books their children got in their still-segregated schools paled in comparison to those given to white students.

By the summer of 1963, Dianne had two years of college in Atlanta behind her. She was pregnant with her first daughter when relatives up north helped secure her a job in a New York coat factory.

She moved in with an aunt and kept in touch with family back in Birmingham. The last letter Dianne got from her little sister came in June. Carole, who served on a church committee on racial problems, was excited because she had been chosen to represent the 16th Street Baptist Church at a youth conference. She never got to attend.

On September 15, Dianne was visiting with other family members when her aunt called.

"My aunt told me" about the bombing, "and I just kind of fainted." A bit later, she spoke to her mother. Her father, she says, was unable to talk. He'd identified Carole's body and split a door on the porch when he came home because he'd slammed it so hard. Ten years later, he would die of a massive heart attack. Dianne doesn't think he ever got over what happened to his baby girl. Her older brother remained angry and bitter until he died two years ago, she says.

"Their hearts were broken," she says. They thought they were "supposed to be the protectors, and there was nothing they could do about it."

Dianne flew to Birmingham the day after Carole died. Her parents were all business, planning the funeral for that Tuesday. Her mother picked out an outfit to match what Carole wore the day of the bombing -- a white dress and her first pair of little pumps, specially selected for the youth service that was to follow Sunday school that tragic morning. By afternoon, civil rights leaders including King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy came to the Robertsons and asked them to reconsider their plans. They wanted them to take part in a joint funeral for all four girls scheduled one day later. Her parents chose to pass on that idea; Dianne supported their decision.

"The world was upset and hurt, but it was our family's grief," Dianne says. "There was a privacy about it that I really appreciated."

Dianne returned to New York and married the father of her child. When their daughter was born, they named her Carole. The couple, who would later have a second daughter, always assumed they'd settle in Birmingham. But after the bombing, Dianne said she never could. She enrolled in Queens College.

"It helped me a lot not to be in Birmingham or the South," she says. "In New York, I got a whole new perspective on white America. We were working together. I saw the goodness and the kindness."

For many years she told only a few close friends what happened to her sister. It was too horrific to talk about, and she didn't want anyone to think she "wore it as a badge of honor." Nothing about losing Carole felt honorable.

Now 69 and divorced, Dianne Robertson Braddock has lived for 40 years in Laurel, Maryland, where she keeps tokens of the past. The portraits of Carole that her mother kept on the family mantle are now with her. Like most of the other victims' siblings, she also has artistic renderings of the four girls.

She describes a sister who leaned toward serious, was an avid reader and clarinet player, and a proud Girl Scout who liked to show off her sash and all its badges. Carole was thoughtful and an intent listener. Even as the baby of the family, she'd mediate arguments between her older siblings.

"She would have been more of a diplomat than me," says Dianne. "She might have been a diplomat, a politician, a historian."

Diane has spent her career in education, working to improve the lives of others -- much like the women who came before her and her late sister. Their maternal grandmother, a teacher, founded the first black PTA in Birmingham. Their mother immersed herself in the voter registration movement. Dianne remembers handing out fliers as a high school student. Last June's U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act makes her shudder.

She's proud of how her sister's memory is kept alive. Three learning centers in Chicago bear her name. Carole Robertson Day is observed each year by chapters of Jack and Jill of America, a national organization their mother helped lead that exists to empower youth.

Her big regret is not being able to know her sister as an adult. Back when Carole was her "bratty little sister," a five-year age gap seemed significant. Today, she knows it wouldn't have meant a thing.

Fate Morris' late sister is known as Cynthia Wesley. He wants that changed.
Fate Morris' late sister is known as Cynthia Wesley. He wants that changed.
Kendrick Brinson/Getty Images for CNN

One victim, two perspectives

Fate Morris, a 61-year-old disabled veteran, moves carefully. His speech is slightly off, the right side of his body partially paralyzed, the result of a stroke he had after open-heart surgery 10 years ago.

He was the baby in a family of eight children, being raised by a struggling single mother, when his sister Cynthia went to live with the Wesleys. She was smart and brimming with potential; the Wesleys -- both educators who couldn't have children of their own -- were able to nurture her in a way their mother couldn't.

"They fell in love with her and could send her to better schools," he says. "We missed her a lot, but we all knew it was for the best." She did come home on weekends, though, returning to the Wesleys on Sundays, he says. To him, she never stopped being a Morris.

In his mind, she was 10 or 11 when she left. As proof, he points to a portrait of her in a dress made by their mother; he says the picture was taken when Cynthia was 9. But others -- including childhood friends who only knew her as a Wesley -- have always said she was about 6. Figuring out who's right, when relatives say no formal adoption was ever processed, would be hard to do.

Memory can be a brutal weapon, and it has haunted and beaten up Fate ever since Cynthia died.

He was 11 and at home, three blocks away from the church, when he heard and felt the explosion. He came down the street to find an angry crowd, yelling at police who had gathered outside. With a 14-year-old friend, he says, he began helping remove debris.

"Someone said, 'I got another body over here,'" he remembers, as tears start to fall. "Then the last thing I heard was, 'I got a body over here, but she has no head.'"

That was Cynthia.

"I didn't know she went to 16th Street Baptist Church until the day she was found," he says.

Every day at about 4 a.m., for 50 years, Fate says he's wept remembering that moment and how he responded. He ran away. He couldn't stay. And he can't forgive himself for it.

"I wasn't there for her," he sobs in his dark-paneled home just outside Birmingham. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. My friend said 'You should've stayed,' and I didn't stay. I left her buried. Fifty years I've been living with this. ... What could I have done for her? I left her. I knew she was gone, but what bothered me is I left her."

This was a secret he kept for years. He never told his mother he was there that day.

Fate cries openly like no other surviving sibling seems to do. He guesses this is because of the guilt he says he carries. He says he never got help to deal with the emotions that overcome him. He tried, saying he met with psychiatrists, but says they didn't believe his story. He blames the ignorance of young doctors who didn't understand what was going on at that time.

Cynthia's funeral, the one that was held for three of the four girls, included a eulogy by King. Fate says his family stood near the back as the Wesleys took their place by the casket of his sister who shared their name.

"We had to virtually hold my mother up," he remembers.

As the years went on and Cynthia Wesley was mentioned in the media, he says he asked his mother if hearing that name bothered her. She told him it did. He asked if she wanted to do anything about it. She said, "No. I don't want to drag her name through the mud."

But his mother died in 1988, and Fate, who says he's the only surviving Morris sibling, helped wage battles she never did. He says he hired a lawyer to prove that Cynthia had never been adopted. He points to copies of her birth certificate and an amendment to her death certificate, certified in 2002, that lists Cynthia's birth name and birth parents.

At one point, he says, he hoped for restitution for her death, but today he believes if it was going to come, it should have happened long ago.

For now, he says, he'd be happy to see his sister's name changed to Morris in history books, on historic markers and on her grave.

"I know it would make my mother happy," he says. "And it might give me peace of mind."

Shirley Wesley King was informally adopted by the Wesleys after Cynthia died.
Shirley Wesley King was informally adopted by the Wesleys after Cynthia died.
Justin Clemons/Getty Images for CNN

Fate's struggle is one Shirley Wesley King, 63, feels compassion for, but she's been where Cynthia was and has a different view.

There's a long history of informal adoptions in the black community, she explains. That is how both she and Cynthia became Wesleys, though Shirley would join the family in 1964, after Cynthia was gone.

Shirley was the youngest in a family of four girls being raised by a single mother. Her mom, who cooked, cleaned and cared for other people's children, made her girls read all the time. Shirley devoured learning.

She desperately wanted to go to college and become a social worker, but she knew college wasn't something her mother could afford. A teacher who saw Shirley's hunger -- and knew the Wesleys -- would help make her dreams possible.

In the late fall of 1963, after the bombing, the teacher told Shirley's mother about the Wesleys and how they'd treated Cynthia as if she was their own. She explained how another child in the Wesley home might help heal their wounds, and that they had the means to support a girl with ambitions like Shirley's.

It was an interesting proposition, but Shirley's mother knew it wasn't her decision to make.

"My mother asked me what I thought about going to visit this family. I said, 'I would love to go to college,'" Shirley remembers saying. "She said, 'Well, I want you to go to college, too.'"

Her relationship with the Wesleys grew slowly. The couple first came over for a visit, bringing with them the family dog, a cockapoo named Tootsie. Over the course of months, many back-and-forth visits followed. The families got to know and respect one another. Shirley says by the time she moved in with them in April 1964, she enjoyed being part of a blended family. Her biological family lived near school, so she never stopped seeing them. But she would call the Wesleys her parents, too.

Shirley was 18 months younger than Cynthia, and though in some respects she stepped in where Cynthia left off, she never felt like she was a replacement daughter. There was no way she could be, she says. Cynthia was a "steady spirit" in the Wesley home, she says, her eyes welling. An extension of them all -- herself included.

"I could, to a degree, step into her shoes," she says, but they were different people. "She played clarinet. I did not do that. I played piano."

A large portrait of Cynthia hung above the piano Shirley practiced on every day. She slept in the twin bed that once belonged to Cynthia, and shared a bedroom with a grandmother who talked about Cynthia all the time. There were tears about the girl the Wesleys had lost, but Shirley says, "As much as they could, they wanted to focus on life."

She knows her being there helped the Wesleys cope and find some semblance of continuity. But Shirley, who now lives in Dallas, also knows she got just as much in return.

With them, her world opened up. The love the couple shared inspired her. Beyond gaining access to higher education and different circles, she developed new passions.

The Wesleys were involved with an organization that brought people of diverse faith, race, socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds together. Shirley learned to not be afraid of differences, embrace the hard conversations and seek out the good.

She earned a Ph.D. in social work, taught and became an associate dean at a university. She led courses and fostered dialogues about ethics and diversity. She became active in the Southern Poverty Law Center and -- a nod to how her life was changed -- has long done work in the fields of foster care and adoption. She has trained people working in child welfare, consulted with agencies and volunteers, and advised prospective and current families. Today she helps her husband, a clinical psychologist, run a mental health and substance abuse facility.

"No matter what your loss is, you have to focus on the positive -- not the things you can't change," she says. "And you have to learn to forgive. If you hold onto anger, you end up being your worst enemy."

Addie Mae Collins died in the bombing. Her sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, survived.
Addie Mae Collins died in the bombing. Her sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, survived.
Kendrick Brinson/Getty Images for CNN

Left standing

Only one person in that church bathroom survived the blast, and that was Sarah Collins, younger sister of victim Addie Mae Collins. She was 12 at the time, the youngest in a family of eight children, and she says she remembers everything.

Sarah, dubbed "the fifth little girl," was severely injured that day and has spent much of her life feeling ignored. Sometimes she thinks the world would have cared more about her if she'd died, too.

She and Addie had skipped Sunday school that morning and were hiding in the ladies lounge in the basement. Sarah peeked out the door to see Denise, Carole and Cynthia coming their way after class ended. She scrambled back inside and went to the sink, pretending she had to wash her hands. Addie stood beside her.

The other three girls came into the lounge. They weren't in there together for more than four or five minutes, Sarah says. Denise asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. Sarah looked over her shoulder, her hands still in the sink, and watched.

Then it hit.


"That sound," she says, "It's in my spirit. I still jump now. I hear that bomb in my sleep."

The room was reduced to pieces. Left behind were a seven-by-seven foot hole in the wall and a crater more than five feet wide and two feet deep, as described in Diane McWhorters's seminal book, "Carry Me Home." Remnants of the eastern wall of the basement blew to the western wall.

The window exploded. Glass flew into Sarah's eyes, face and chest. She was blinded and screamed, "Addie! Addie!" There was no response.

People have said that Sarah was found under the rubble, and that she had been in a separate room with the stalls and that's what saved her. But her memory is different. She says she never left that sink in the lounge and remained standing.

"God didn't let me fall on the floor," she says.

She was scooped up under her arms by a churchgoer and taken outside.

Later, with her 15-year-old sister Janie beside her, "I asked where Addie was. She said Addie hurt her back and was going to come visit me tomorrow," Sarah remembers. "She didn't want me to be upset." She learned the truth when she overheard Janie telling a nurse that Addie had been killed. For more than two months she remained in the hospital and cried for Addie.

She lost sight in her right eye, and would later have to have it replaced with a prosthetic. Her left eye still has a piece of glass in it, but she says it doesn't hurt. She developed glaucoma as a teenager, but thanks to the right doctor and glasses she says she sees out of it just fine.

When she got home, she says her mother was too torn up about Addie to focus on her. Instead, Janie stepped in.

Sarah's face had been peppered with glass. Another piece had lodged in her chest. Doctors removed what they could, but there was more.

"She'd pick glass from my face when it rose to the surface," Sarah says.

Strangers didn't reach out to comfort or hug her, she says. She wonders if her scarred appearance frightened them. She missed months of school, fell behind and when she came back she said one of her teachers had little patience for her.

"I was feeling like I was dead on the inside because of how I was treated," she says.

The feeling of being overlooked -- by strangers, teachers, those who might have been in a position to help her -- stuck with Sarah.

No one at home talked about the bombing.

Her family struggled. Her father, who died in 1967, bused tables in a Chinese restaurant while her mother worked as a housekeeper. Up until Addie was gone, Sarah shared a bed with three sisters -- "two at the head, and two at the feet," she says.

Sarah didn't grow up surrounded by the sorts of role models the McNair, Robertson and Wesley sisters had. Even so, she says she dreamed of becoming a nurse. Addie, who loved drawing, would have been an artist, she says.

Their mother was a committed churchgoer. They went to 16th Street Baptist Church and sang in the choir. But when it reopened about nine months later, Sarah couldn't stand being inside. While the other victims' families found comfort there, within two or three weeks Sarah's family stopped going.

She never did get counseling and thinks it's too late for that. She would later turn to alcohol and marijuana to dull the pain. Neither made her hurt less.

"I had to get saved," says Sarah, 62, who finished high school, spent years casting metal in a foundry and now is a housekeeper. "The only thing that helped me was getting closer to God," which she did in 1986.

She had two failed marriages and wasn't able to have children.

"Mama said I was never going to have kids," she says, "because I still have glass in my stomach."

On her birthday in 2000, she married George Rudolph, a man she had gone to high school with years before. He still cries when he hears her testimony.

The coffee table in their living room is littered with memorabilia. Articles from over the years, some yellowed, sit in a pile. Books about the civil rights era are in balanced stacks. She opens one to show an old black-and-white photograph of herself in a hospital bed, the bandages still covering her eyes. Amid these historical footnotes are certificates of appreciation, a key to a city, a silver cup from a university -- all meant to honor who she is.

These things, though, are mere tokens. No matter the happiness she's found with George and the salvation she found in the Lord, at times Sarah still simmers.

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She's moved through life feeling forgotten. She testified at all three murder trials, but objects to the fact that there was never a trial for the attempted murder of her.

Doug Jones, who prosecuted the last two trials, praised the significance of Sarah's testimony. But he said the statute of limitations for attempted murder had long passed by the time the state reopened the investigation in 1971.

Sarah also resents that strangers benefit from her sister's death -- scholarships are given in the four girls' names -- while she says she's gotten nothing.

"You'd think they'd do something for the living, but the dead get more, I'll tell you that," she says.

They've done nothing formally -- "Yet," she says -- but Sarah and her husband hold out hopes for restitution for the suffering she's endured and for the loss of her sister. Survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11 got their due, says George -- why not her? Shoot, he adds, a bus monitor who was bullied by students came into hundreds of thousands in cash.

This is why earlier this year, she -- and Fate Morris, Cynthia Wesley's biological brother -- shunned an invitation to Washington, to be by President Barack Obama's side as he signed a bill to grant the four girls, posthumously, the Congressional Gold Medal. They wanted money, not medals, they said at the time. Months later, however, they did attend the September 10 ceremony to receive the actual medals.

There's an irony to Sarah's outlook. She feels ignored, but she doesn't like to put herself out there. When Spike Lee approached her to be in his highly acclaimed documentary about the bombing, she refused, she says, because he wouldn't pay her anything.

"That's why no one knows about me," she admits, before saying she has no regrets.

When Bern Nadette Stanis, an actress best known for her role in the TV show "Good Times," visited, saying she wanted to play the part of Sarah in a proposed stage performance about her life, Sarah took a look at the contract and refused to sign. She says it "didn't look right."

Last November, a Birmingham News article focused just on her. It is framed and featured prominently in her home.

Near it hangs something that means as much, if not more, to her. It is a large pencil drawing of the four girls, given to her at an event where she was honored, yet one more piece of art depicting what was lost. But in this one there is a fifth girl in the picture -- Sarah.

She is not in the background but instead sits front and center. And with her arm around Sarah sits Addie -- one of four girls whose deaths would spark change, touch strangers and shape the future of siblings. Though their paths may have diverged and their memories may vary, they will forever share a piece of history.

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