The Klan Murdered My Sister and Our Friends. Does Alabama Care?

The scars on my face tell me a story every day. A story of how a sweet 12-year old girl and her 14-year old sister Addie giggled as they walked to church on a Sunday morning. How they met their friends Cynthia, Carol and Carole before the service. How they heard a sound—BOOM—and four of them were dead.

It was 1963 and some men from the Ku Klux Klan had set a bomb at the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in the hope that it would kill Black people. It did. My sister and our three friends died. Doctors pulled 22 shards of glass from my face and debris from my eyes. They eventually had to remove my right eye.

I went from being an A student to a girl who struggled with my eyesight and with trauma. My dream was to become a nurse but because of the injuries I suffered I was never able to complete the education necessary to achieve that goal. I hid—from the scars and the pain and that moment, that terrible, terrible moment when everything I knew and held dear exploded. I mourned for my sister Addie, and Denise, who was 11, and for Carole and Carol, who were both 14. I was hospitalized in a segregated hospital.

I have learned that the men who committed this horrific act were inspired and motivated by then-Governor George Wallace’s racist words, urging people to “take the offensive” on white supremacy and pay the “hard price” to retain “freedom of race.” Is that what they meant to happen to 12-year-old Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, who went to church?

It was 14 years before Robert Chambliss, a known Klansman, was tried and convicted in 1977. In the early 2000s, two other Klansmn, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Cherry, were each convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. They are all dead now. But I still had to ask God to heal me and forgive those men for what they did.

I lived in some very dark shadows for 37 years after my attack. In 2000, at age 49, I began to tell my story and I haven’t stopped. When you give voice to injustice, it becomes real. I just need to touch my face to know that. For too many years, I was afraid to tell my story. I thought it was filled with shame and despair. But I know now that my story is one of hope and forgiveness. I have forgiven the men who hurt me, who changed my dreams and the course of my life.

And yet, no one has ever told me they are sorry for what happened to me. This is why, with the help of pro bono lawyers from Jenner & Block, I am asking the State of Alabama for an apology and for the compensation they might see fit for altering the course of a life. My life. 

I see my life as one light, among many. I see Addie and Denise and Carol and Carole and George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others. I can no longer stand by in silence. No one should. We all must speak up in the face of racism and intolerance. It is my hope that we can all come together and begin to love one another. 

I know it is possible.  For me, it starts with justice from the state of Alabama.


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