Opinion

What Does America Owe the Victims of Racial Terrorism?

I met Sarah Collins Rudolph, a small woman nestled into a corded khaki sofa, last month in her darkened living room in Birmingham, Ala. The room is something of a shrine, commemorating the 1963 act of terror that killed four little girls but spared a fifth.

She was that fifth little girl. She survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham 60 years ago. Her sister and her friend were among the girls killed.

In the years leading up to that attack, white terrorists, raging against integration, were detonating bombs in Birmingham so often that the city earned an ignominious nickname: Bombingham.

Rudolph was 12 at the time. That day, the blast sprayed her body, including her eyes, with glass. She was found standing, stunned, in the rubble. She was rushed to a hospital. One eye was lost, but the other was saved, with glass still in it, the doctors afraid of removing it and taking the chance of plunging the girl into total blindness.

When she was told that the other girls had been killed, she told me, “I wanted to cry but all I could do was feel so hurt about it because I know that by my eyes being as it was, I couldn’t cry like I wanted.”

On her coffee table today is a picture of her at the time, in a hospital bed, her face scarred, with patches over both eyes. There is something in me — maybe the father, maybe just the human — that wants to soothe the child in that photo; to hold on to her, to cry over her.

Just days before the bombing, Gov. George Wallace complained that “white people nowhere in the South wanted integration,” and that what was needed instead was “a few first-class funerals.”

With the killing of those girls, Wallace got just that. Thousands attended their funeral and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had sent Wallace a telegram excoriating him — “The blood of our little children is on your hands” — delivered the eulogy.

Pallbearers with the coffin of one of the victims of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.Credit…Burton McNeely/Getty Images
Mourners at a funeral for two of the young girls killed in the bombing.Credit…Burton McNeely/Getty Images

But Rudolph couldn’t attend because she was still in the hospital. For her, proper mourning was long delayed. Her trauma was enveloped by silence.

She explained to me that shortly after being released from the hospital, she was sent back to school “in a terrible situation” because she “didn’t get any counseling or anything.” Most of her classmates were sent away, out of fear, to live with relatives, and her own mother rarely spoke of what had happened beyond occasionally introducing her as “my baby that was in the bomb on 16th Street Church.”

She didn’t talk about the bombing until one day in her 40s, she said, when a preacher told her that he could see she had “a nervous condition” and “he told me that God was going to heal me.”

Since then, she has been speaking out, petitioning for what she believes she is owed: restitution from the state for her pain and suffering.

But it hasn’t come. Rudolph says that the only thing she has received after decades of medical bills is help from the county to replace her prosthetic eye, which she says was valued at $2,000.

Her husband, George Rudolph, interjected at one point in our conversation, his frustration with the situation apparent: “Right now, she still has to go to the eye doctor and pay out of her pocket. That shouldn’t be.”

Responding to Mrs. Rudolph’s demand for restitution, Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama wrote a tepid apology in 2020 — addressed not to her, but to an attorney — full of platitudes and hedging about any possibility of restitution.

One of the things that strongly came across in our interview is that the couple feels disrespected, discounted and dismissed.

“She ought to be treated like 9/11, Mother Emanuel, Boston Marathon,” Mr. Rudolph explained. “Those families got compensated, but they won’t do it for Sarah. And what I don’t understand is, what’s so hard about that?”

The Morning of the Church Bombing

Sarah Collins Rudolph tells Charles M. Blow her memories of that day.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Congress established a victims’ compensation fund for individuals who were injured or relatives of individuals who were killed in the attacks. It was budgeted at $5.12 billion total for the 2002, 2003 and 2004 fiscal years.

Victims’ families and survivors of the 2015 murders at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., sued the federal government, charging that the F.B.I.’s background check system failed to prevent the shooter, a self-proclaimed white nationalist who wanted to start a race war, from buying a gun. He, too, was a terrorist. The case was settled for $88 million.

One Fund Boston was established after the terrorist Boston Marathon bombing, and it raised nearly $80 million from more than 200,000 donors to be paid to the survivors and the families of those killed by the bombing.

The Rudolphs also see themselves as victims of an act of terror — how else can you see it? — that the State of Alabama and the country have acknowledged, but have refused to provide compensation for.

This raises a very real question: What does America owe the victims of the country’s past racial terror?

This is part of the larger debate over reparations. So far, the answers have been wholly insufficient.

In 1994, 71 years after the Rosewood Massacre, the Florida Legislature passed a $2.1 million compensation package for survivors and their descendants, including direct payments and scholarships. For comparison, the families of those who died on Sept. 11 received an average of over $2 million, tax-free, per claim.

In July, an Oklahoma judge threw out a lawsuit from survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre seeking reparations. Twenty-three years ago, a state commission recommended reparations for survivors of the massacre. They never received that money, although some Tulsa high school students have received “reconciliation” scholarships, and in 2022, $1 million was given to three of the survivors by a New York nonprofit.

At the funeral of those little girls from Birmingham, King said that “history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.” But history is also demonstrating that Black people who suffer racial injury are routinely denied indemnity.

And as the Rudolphs settle into their later years, they are acutely aware that time is running out for them to secure some form of restitution. As Mr. Rudolph said, “I’m hoping something will happen, you know, before we leave this earth.”

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