Sisters share stories of ’63 church bombing
Sojourn to the Past experience gives Youngstown students new perspective
EDITOR’S NOTE: Correspondent Sean Barron is accompanying Youngstown students on the annual Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — If Denise McNair was alive, Max Shelton wouldn’t hesitate to open her heart to her.
“I would tell her, ‘You are the most inspirational and amazing person I’ve met.’ I would give her a giant hug and say I’m glad she’s here,” Shelton, a Wilson Alternative High School junior, said.
Shelton, however, will never have the opportunity to meet Denise McNair, though she got to meet and bond with McNair’s younger sister, Lisa McNair. That’s because McNair spoke last week in the 16th Street Baptist Church, where her sister was one of four girls killed in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the landmark church, which was a cradle of civil rights planning and strategy sessions. Denise McNair was 11.
Shelton is among the local students, teachers and chaperones who have embarked on an eight-day Sojourn to the Past journey to historic civil rights sites in the South.
They also joined a large contingent of students and educators from Chico, Calif., and the San Francisco Bay area. The group left last week and returns late Friday.
Following McNair’s 30-minute talk in the church was a presentation from Sarah Collins Rudolph, whose sister, Addie Mae Collins, also perished in the blast. She was 14.
Shelton said that McNair “was a young child like me” whose life was tragically cut short by the terrorist bombing. Consequently, McNair was deprived of being able to appreciate the impact she had on others, and to be honored for what she could have achieved.
Shelton also expressed surprise at McNair’s and Collins Rudolph’s reaction to having been injured and blinded in the attack, as well as for having lost their sisters.
“It shocked me, really, because I thought that they would be a little mad this happened. But I saw that they forgave those who wronged them, and it showed us there’s a violent and a nonviolent way to go about it. I decided I would choose to be nonviolent,” she explained.
During her presentation, McNair, who was born a year after her sister’s killing, described the aftermath of the attack. Her sister was found with a piece of concrete embedded in her head, something the family has kept to send a powerful message.
“This is a piece of tangible history to show how hate can kill, hate does kill,” McNair told the crowd of more than 100 in the church sanctuary, just yards from where the bomb had exploded.
Despite enduring the tragedy, her late parents, Christopher and Maxine McNair, taught their daughter to be filled with love instead of hatred. The family could have remained bitter, but their faith in God kept them from going down that dark path, she explained.
She also praised the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, a white minister who pastored St. Paul Lutheran Church, which her father had attended. His guidance and activism demonstrated “that not all white people hated us,” she said.
McNair’s father also believed in channeling his grief via thrusting himself into public service, so in 1973, he became the first black Jefferson County resident to serve in the state Legislature, she continued.
In addition, McNair recalled having accompanied her parents to the White House to meet President Barack Obama, who in 2013 bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously upon the four slain girls.
She also has penned a book, “Dear Denise: Letters to the Sister I Never Knew.”
“It scared me so much. All I could say was, ‘Jesus,'” Collins Rudolph said, referring to the blast when she was 12. “I was carried out through a crater to an ambulance. I just cried all night and every day when I was in the hospital.”
Collins Rudolph recalled having been in the “ladies lounge” in the basement when the explosion occurred as she and the others prepared for that Sunday’s Youth Day service. The theme was “The Love that Forgives.”
Collins Rudolph told the group she never received psychological help to deal with her trauma, but made some poor choices until she was talked into attending her sister, Janie’s church. There, she was baptized and found herself on a path to trying to change her life.
“My minister prayed with me and I felt God renew me,” Collins Rudolph said.
Nevertheless, she had difficulty fathoming why the bombing took place — and took the lives of four innocent children.
“Why did they kill those girls, those sweet girls who did no harm to anybody?” she said.
Collins Rudolph told the students and adults that the best way to honor her sister and the other three girls is to exercise their right to vote.
In recent years, she has been on the speaking circuit sharing her story. Collins Rudolph also has written a book about her experiences, titled, “The 5th Little Girl.”
Penny Wells, executive director of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, said Collins Rudolph will be this year’s recipient of the Simeon Booker Award for Courage during Youngstown’s annual nonviolence week in October.
Earlier in the journey, the Youngstown group heard a presentation from Janice W. Kelsey of Birmingham, who was among the more than 4,100 children arrested in the May 1963 Children’s March to desegregate the city. Kelsey retired after more than 30 years as a science teacher, guidance counselor and principal.