Alabama governor apologizes to 1963 church bombing survivor

Free Press wire reports | 10/8/2020, 6 p.m.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has apologized to a survivor of a racist 1963 church bombing that killed four Black girls, ...
Sarah Collins Rudolph and her husband, George Rudolph, discuss the results of the 2016 presidential election in this Nov. 16, 2016, photo taken in their home in Birmingham, Ala. Mrs. Rudolph was blinded in one eye and lost her sister, Addie Mae Collins, in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Jay Reeves/Associated Press

Birminghan, AL - Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has apologized to a survivor of a racist 1963 church bombing that killed four Black girls, calling the blast an “egregious injustice.” But the governor declined on Sept. 30 to pay restitution without legislative involvement.

Gov. Ivey, responding to a request submitted by an attorney for Sarah Collins Rudolph, said the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., caused “untold pain and suffering” through the decades to the victims and their families.

“For that, they most certainly deserve a sincere, heartfelt apology — an apology that I extend today without hesitation or reservation,” Gov. Ivey wrote.

But Gov. Ivey said legislators would have to be involved in talks about Mrs. Rudolph’s request for restitution. “For that reason, I would propose that our attorneys — as well as attorneys for the Legislature — begin such discussions with you as soon as possible,” she wrote.

Mrs. Rudolph was unavailable for immediate comment, but her husband, George Rudolph, said they had yet to receive Gov. Ivey’s letter.

“I didn’t know she had apologized,” he said. An attorney for Mrs. Rudolph, Ishan Bhabha, said he and other members of Mrs. Rudolph’s legal team were “gratified” by the apology and looked forward to discussions about compensation that she “justly deserves.”

Five girls were gathered in a downstairs bathroom at the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963, when a timed bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan members went off outside under a set of stairs. The blast killed Denise McNair, 11, and three 14- year-olds: Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, who was Mrs. Rudolph’s sister.

Blinded in one eye by the blast, Mrs. Rudolph, 69, has spent a lifetime dealing with physical and mental pain from the bombing. Despite her injuries, Mrs. Rudolph provided testimony that helped lead to the convictions of the men accused of planting the bomb.

Three KKK members convicted in the bombing years later died in prison, and a fourth suspect died without ever being charged.

A law firm working without charge on Mrs. Rudolph’s behalf sent a letter to Gov. Ivey arguing that the words of state leaders, including then Gov. George Wallace, encouraged the bombing. Months earlier, Gov. Wallace had vowed “segregation forever” during his inaugural, and the bombing occurred as Birmingham’s public schools were being desegregated.

Gov. Ivey wrote that there were questions about whether the state could be held legally liable for the bombing.

“Having said that, there should be no question that the racist, segregationist rhetoric used by some of our leaders during that time was wrong and would be utterly unacceptable in today’s Alabama,” the governor said.