by Rev. John Dear, S.J.
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
This year, my summer reading included Carolyn Maull McKinstry’s memoir, While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement (Tyndale, 2011, 301 pp., with Denise George), which I picked up at the Civil Rights Institute on a recent visit to Birmingham, Ala. I was profoundly moved by her story about the infamous Sept. 15, 1963, Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed her four girlfriends. She tells of the long aftermath of pain, grief and resentment that led to her astonishing turn toward forgiveness and universal love. Carolyn McKinstry, I believe, is a rare Gospel witness of truth and love, and I highly recommend her book.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of that bombing, which came just weeks after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall. It was one of the most horrific tragedies of the era.
Carolyn, her family and friends were devoted members of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The pastor’s sermon that morning was called “A Love that Forgives,” and was to be based on Luke 23:34 — “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” They were all looking forward to it.
Fifteen-year-old Carolyn was just a few feet away when the Klan bomb exploded, killing her best friends: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley. They were in the bathroom preparing for the church service, which was to feature them. She had spoken to them only seconds before. The bomb killed them instantly. One side of the church was badly damaged. The beautiful, large stained glass window of Jesus was untouched, except that debris blew a hole right through Jesus’ face.
Earlier that year, Carolyn had skipped school to march with Dr. King and hundreds of other young people in the massive spring protest against segregation. Like every other African-American in Birmingham, she had experienced and witnessed firsthand the white racism, the evil system of segregation, the ongoing bombings and the inhumane injustices. But that day, she herself faced down Bull Connor’s vicious German shepherds and white police officers, then received the full force of the water hoses, which tore off a large patch of her hair…