ATLANTIC CITY — Sarah Collins Rudolph calls herself the “fifth little girl.”
She survived the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, more than 50 years ago, and now, she travels the country sharing her story.
On Wednesday, Rudolph told students at Atlantic City High School it took her a very long time to open up about her experience.
Rudolph’s sister and three other young girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair — died in an explosion set by members of the Ku Klux Klan at a black church in Birmingham, on Sept. 15, 1963. Twenty-two others were injured.
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Three Klansman were sentenced in the girls’ murders. A fourth alleged bomber was never charged.
Coming at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the bombing “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”
Rudolph visited both the high school and Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville last week to talk about the life-changing event, made all the more relevant after several recent attacks on houses of worship in the United States and abroad.
She thanked God for her strength.
“I was going through a lot before He healed me,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here speaking if God hadn’t done work on the inside of me.”
Rudolph called people who go into churches to kill others “cowards.”
“We shouldn’t think of doing people like that. You don’t know them, and you want to do harm to them? It’s time for this whole nation to really love each other and stop all the killing,” Rudolph said, her voice deep and soft with a strong Southern twang.
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Questions for the assembly were prepared by Atlantic City journalism students.
Seniors Farhana Siddiquei, Gerald Angon-Posada and Na-Drai Brickhouse took the stage with Rudolph, her husband, George C. Rudolph, Northfield Councilwoman Susan Korngut, who helped facilitate the event, and Atlantic City High School Principal Lina Gil.
Gil said she was honored to have Rudolph at the school.
“Having a survivor of a bombing share her story really puts a reality to what they’re experiencing as they see these events on social media and the news,” Gil said.
Rudolph said the biggest lesson she learned from her traumatic experience was to love.
“That was the name of the sermon,” she said. “That’s what they were talking about that Sunday. They almost took that loving feeling out of me that I had because, I’m just going to be honest, I really started hating people.”
She said she still has post-traumatic stress disorder, which causes nervousness, from the bombing.
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Rudolph has been speaking with students since 2002.
She hopes she can inspire and inform, and help turn those who may consider violence away from it.
“A lot of young people weren’t born in 1963, and they need to know about this history, what we had to do to get this freedom that we have,” she said. “How people had to suffer and die for us to get this freedom. And people shouldn’t take it for granted.”
She said she never thought her story would still be so relevant today.
“And I don’t understand why,” Rudolph said.
“It’s something that should never happen.”