The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church happened over 50 years ago. I probably learned about it from a spread in Life magazine. I knew nothing, though, about a fifth girl who witnessed the bombing, lost her sister, became blind in one eye, and lived to tell her story until I read The 5th Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, written by Dr. Tracy Snipe in conversation with Sarah Collins Rudolph. The bombing was an act of domestic terrorism before anyone coined the term. The flagrant racism displayed the need for change and encouraged Congress to pass Civil Rights legislation.
More than a memoir, this is a historical recounting of a tragic day and its long-term consequences. It’s filled with primary sources in both the footnotes and the copies of letters and court transcripts as well as Rudolph’s oral history. It’s a study in PTSD, lack of compensation for an outrageous crime, and faith and forgiveness.
Early in the book Rudolph says, “Over the years, I’ve relied on faith to keep me going.” The epigraphs at the start of each chapter show how well she knows the Bible. But the book is about more than faith. It’s about the way she was ignored, the fact that no government agency covered the medical bills she incurred throughout her life as a result of the blast that blinded her in one eye and left the other one damaged, and that she had to pay for help with the PTSD that’s still triggered by loud noises 50 years after the incident.
Humans are complex. So is survival, especially when a girl loses her sister. The two were in the basement bathroom when the bombing happened. Had Rudolph been closer to the window, she would be dead too.
Today, Rudolph is an active speaker, along with author Tracy Snipe. She wants her audiences to know that she’s “letting the world know [her] sister didn’t die for freedom. [Her] sister died because they put a bomb in that church and they murdered her.”
The 5th Little Girl is also about her search for forgiveness. It’s easy to understand the complexity of forgiving those who never get to know you but hate you for your appearance. It’s hard to forgive those who disrupted a place of worship and took the life of a family member. It’s hard to forgive a government that doesn’t offer you financial compensation for medical expenses.
In plain English Rudolph makes her case for justice over and over. Dr. Snipes’ book preserves her voice and speech. At first her phrasing and repetition interrupted the flow of the story, but I came to appreciate that this story should be told in her unedited words. I let go of my editing biases. If you consider first-hand documentation important, put your editor out on the patio and read for the story. You won’t find a more accurate historical account of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.