Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

Birmingham and Beyond: Racial Tensions in America (Part 2 of 3)

Birmingham and Beyond: Racial Tensions in America (Part 2 of 3)

Carolyn McKinstry discusses her experiences during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, including her survival of several violent clashes resulting from racial tensions. She emphasizes a message of forgiveness, reconciliation and love based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. (Part 2 of 3)



Carolyn McKinstry: I struggled with this quite a bit, but my struggle was very personal from the standpoint of to simplify this as a 14-year-old, the problem seemed to be that I was brown. The problem seemed to be that anyone who was brown, there just was a dislike for that person. But I was deeply troubled and I think that the trouble really intensified as the bombings became more prevalent around Birmingham.

End of Recap

John Fuller: Well, that’s Carolyn McKinstry, and she was our guest on the last “Focus on the Family” program, talking about some of the very difficult experiences in her life in the 1960s, right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama. She’s back with us today and your host is Focus president, Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and Jim, what a dramatic story Carolyn started last time.

Jim Daly: Oh, John, I mean, amazing that this has happened to any people group. It’s not a bright spot in American history, and we need to confess that. There’s shame in that and particularly we as Christians, as we look at injustice, I am baffled, and I was only–I was born in 1961–but I’m baffled that we couldn’t have the clarity of conscience to see what was happening, to apply our Christian understanding to that. Some did, but some didn’t. And you know, it’s just a good place to learn and to hopefully, never repeat those things again. And I am lookin’ forward to today’s program, as well.

Carolyn shared last time how she participated in the Civil Rights March. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom we celebrated with a federal holiday yesterday, he came to her church, the 16th Street Baptist Church and was a catalyst to get a lot of young people to march for freedom and to do that peaceably and to do that with Christian conviction. And we’re gonna pick up today where we left off last time. And if you didn’t hear the program last time, get the download. Get the CD, because it’s a compelling story that I hope paints that picture, that helps you to feel what it might be like to be on the other end of that kind of mistreatment.

John: Uh-hm, yeah, I hope you’ll pick up the book that Carolyn has written, which captures so much of the story. It’s called While the World Watched and we’ve got details about that at


Jim: Carolyn, let me say, welcome back to “Focus on the Family.”

Carolyn: Thank you.

Jim: First of all, now you do not look your age, girl. (Laughter)

Carolyn: Well, thank you.

John: I wish you could see that on national radio here.

Jim: I know it’s risky, but it’s true.

Carolyn: You know—

Jim: You—

Carolyn: –that’s okay.

Jim: –told me last time when you were born, so I was like, wow!

Carolyn: Well, that’s a great way to start the interview. (Laughter) You get 25 extra points for that.

Jim: Twenty-five points for that.

Carolyn: Thank you.

Jim: But man, you come from some good genes and I just want to say thank you for sharing last time about that pain and the ability now to speak about it and to write about it. You said that it took you 20 years to really be able to unfold this emotionally. And it took you into some dark places and we’ll talk about that a little later, about how you tried to deal with that pain.

But we need to get through that story where we left off last time. The march has occurred. The police have encountered the group in Birmingham. They’re spraying you with hoses. They’re beginning to arrest many children and teenagers who were participating in the march. You had left high school with many of your fellow students to be in the march. Talk about those that were arrested and what treatment did they receive? Where did they go? I mean, your mom and dad had to be that day thinking, what are they doing? What have they gotten into? Paint that picture for us.

Carolyn: I think there were many parents and many business people that were just shocked at what they were seeing, with the water hoses and dogs and then police showing up with paddy wagons and children being stuffed in the back of those paddy wagons and …

Jim: Eight, 9-, 10-year-olds, even.

Carolyn: Right, absolutely. And initially most of them were taken to the Birmingham City Jails, but when those jails began to overflow, they were taken to the fairgrounds, a place that we called Kiddieland back in the ’60s. We’ve heard many stories about [the face that] some of them were frightened—

Jim: Sure.

Carolyn: –in tears, but I think they all look back on that experience now as one that was well-worth doing. I would like to say that one of the things that they were warned about during the meeting at the church was to be prepared to stay several days. If they were arrested, [they] did not know if they would be able to get them out immediately or how long. So, students understood even that when they were arrested. I may be here one day; I may be here four or five days.

And so, I think there was comfort in the fact that when you saw all of these students, if you were one of those students, these were classmates. These were neighbors. These were children that you may have attended church with, so you were not among strangers. You knew the people that were around you and you understood that you were all fighting for the same causes. We were fighting for the privileges of citizenship. We had all of the burdens and the responsibilities of citizenship, but not the privileges.

Jim: In fact, you heard President, then President John F. Kennedy in a speech say some words that were powerful to you. Let’s listen to what he said.


President John F. Kennedy: This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

It ought to be possible for American consumers of any color to receive equal service in places of public accommodation, such as hotels and restaurants and theaters and retail stores, without being forced to resort to demonstrations in the streets.

And it ought to be possible for American citizens of any color to register and to vote in a free election without interference or fear of reprisal. One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons are not fully free.

They’re not yet free from the bonds of injustice. They’re not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this nation, for all its hope and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.

End of Clip

Jim: When you heard that, what was your reaction?

Carolyn: I was moved, even as a young person, just deep in my spirit that we saw it as our President is standing up for us. Our President is challenging our nation to look upon all of its citizens as equal citizens and to afford to all of those citizens all of the rights and privileges of citizenship.

As I had stated earlier, we had all of the burdens of citizenship, but we had none of the privileges. And so, our President was challenging them that our country was a diverse country. I mean, it’s very diverse today. And I think another part of that speech went on to say, are we going to say per our Constitution, per our government documents, our founding documents, if you will, are we going to say that those privileges are just for some people or for everyone, except Negroes? Or are we going to say that our founding documents are for all of the citizens of the United States? So, I think he really challenged us to take a look at who we had been and saying, maybe we’ve never really thought about it, but this is what the document means. And this is who we really want to be.

Jim: And to paint that picture for those that didn’t hear our discussion last time and again, if you haven’t heard that, get it, download the CD, we’ll connect you to that. But you painted that picture where even in your own home, your mom and dad were silent about the conflict and that was generally true within the black community in Birmingham at the time. It was something you just didn’t want to talk about.

And yet, here the President now is beginning to talk about it. Did that change you? Did it change the feeling that, okay, if the President’s talking about it, perhaps we can begin to talk about it? Did it break open that discussion a little bit, even within your family?

Carolyn: It did not break open the discussion in our house, and if I can really be honest about why I think there may not have been discussion in our house, I mentioned earlier that I think that our father didn’t want to plant ideas, his ideas or his thoughts in our mind. But I think also there was an element of helplessness or powerlessness that existed with probably most families during that period. My father knew that if I were involved in the marches, or anything else, and if I got into some type of trouble, there probably wasn’t going to be a lot that he could do to help me out.

You know, for most things that happened in Birmingham, it wasn’t where my father could come and say, “You know what? I’m gonna make sure that this doesn’t happen again. Dad is gonna take care of you. I’m gonna make sure.” Dads and moms love to assure their children that whatever has happened, you know, we missed it this time, but we’re gonna take care of you. We’re gonna make sure this doesn’t happen.Our fathers really were not in a position to effect any change. They were not in a position to protect us.

Jim: They were powerless.

Carolyn: They were powerless. So, I think that, that is one of the reasons that we didn’t get the conversation, because he could not honestly say to us, “I’m gonna make sure that you’re protected, that I can take care of you.” Because we never knew what was going to happen in Birmingham. If there were another march or something else came up, there you were, having made that promise.

Jim: Well, and in fact, you never shared with your mom and dad that you were gonna march that day.

Carolyn: I never shared that with them at all. I knew my dad would say no.

Jim: And many of those kids probably didn’t tell their mom or dad either.

Carolyn: Or dads, yeah.

Jim: To that effect, I mean, they would want you to not participate in order to protect you. That would be completely reasonable. Let’s move to the church though, where the bombing occurs. I want to hear from you about that day—

Carolyn: September 15th 1963.

Jim: –1963. Talk about the day, how it started. You’re at 16th Street Baptist Church. What was normal about it? And then what suddenly became abnormal?

Carolyn: I arrived at church on September 15th, 1963 about 9:30. I had two younger brothers in tow—Alan, who was 6 and Wendell, who was 10. And I took them to their classes and then I proceeded upstairs to the church office. I was our Sunday school secretary.

Jim: So, you’re 14.

Carolyn: I’m 14 (Laughter) and my job is to take attendance in all the classes. My job is to count the money and to create a summary report. And when Sunday school is over, I present that report. So, when I arrived, the first thing I do is pass out the reports and I sit in my Sunday school class. Somewhere around 10:15, I get up, collect those reports and create that summary.

Well, after I collected everything downstairs on this day, I started upstairs. There was only one way up from my class and you had to pass the girls’ bathroom to get upstairs. If you were there today, you could not touch that space, because we sealed it off. But you had to pass the bathroom.

So, I need to describe how it was designed, so that as we talk about this story, we can understand why some things happen. But when you initially walked into that bathroom, it was a lounge area. There was free-standing mirrors [sic] and a sofa and it looked like a den. And then beyond that was another door. And if you went through that door, there were three toilets. Those toilets had the big I call them steel doors, the big heavy doors that had the mirrors on the back. And then across from those three toilets were three face bowls or vanities, if you will, where you could wash your hands.

So, as I passed the bathroom, I see Cynthia, Denise, Addie and Carole. I saw good morning to them. I did not pause there, because once I left my Sunday school class, I only had about 10 minutes to get that report ready.

But we were all excited that day for two reasons. One, it was Youth Day. That meant that we were everything. We were the choir. We were the ushers. We were the Scripture readers. We were everything. We were also excited about the fact that we had a meeting coming up at Cynthia’s house. We had a little girls’ club and Cynthia’s father had been my elementary school principal. He was my principal when I won the spelling competition. And we visited back and forth at each other’s home[s]. So, these were not just girls in the Sunday school class. These were girls that I really knew well.

Denise’s father was my 9th-grade teacher at Parker High School. So, talking to them was like talking to a neighbor that you’ve known for a long time. But I didn’t talk to them. I just paused. I said, good morning. They were laughing and primping, as girls do. But I was holding these materials, so I kept walking, started up the stairs and when I reached the top of the stairs, which is where the church office was then, the phone was ringing.

And I peeped inside. The woman that I worked for, Mrs. Shorter was not there, so I went in and I answered the phone and the male caller on the other end said, “Three minutes.” As quickly as he said that, he hung up. I’m still holding all of my materials and I sort of think about it, but I just hang up the phone and only because we counted the steps several times, I step out into the sanctuary.

Now I’m about to collect reports from the adult classes. Children are downstairs. Adults are upstairs. So, as I step out to collect from the adult classes, the bomb explodes. And initially, when I heard the initial noise, my mind went to weather.

Jim: You’re trying to sort out what happened.

Carolyn: Trying to figure out what was going on. But immediately as I thought that, the windows came crashing in. And people started screaming and I heard someone say, “Hit the floor.” And I stopped right in the aisle where I was and fell on the floor with everything on the floor. And it was really quiet for maybe 15, 20 seconds. And then I could hear feet. I could tell that people were getting up, running out of the church.

And so, my first thought went to those two little brothers that I had brought with me that Sunday. I think I mentioned that my father had this rule, if three people left home together, three people must return together.

Jim: So, that was the first thought you had.

Carolyn: That was my first thought in my head; there was no such thing as I don’t know where they are or you know. So, I went looking for them and I came in and out of the building, in and out of the building, just searching in rooms, peeping into rooms, just wondering where they were.

And that’s another story how we found them later, but eventually when we came out of the building, what we saw was that the church was already surrounded by police. It had already been blocked off by policemen. And people were still looking for their loved ones, their children or their sisters and brothers.

And neighbors that lived in close proximity to the church, began to come out of their homes and they were looking and walking around. And some of them began to get angry and everyone was trying to understand what had happened.

And we didn’t know for a long time that the girls had never made it out of the bathroom.

Jim: They all died.

Carolyn: And they all died. It would actually be later that day, probably somewhere between 3 and 4 o’clock when someone called. By then I was home. Someone called my mother to let her know that the girls had never made it out of the bathroom. There were five girls in the bathroom. I didn’t see Sarah as I passed by. We didn’t hear anything about Sarah when they called between 3 and 4 o’clock. It would be several weeks before the children actually knew that there had been a fifth person in the bathroom.

And if you remember how I described it, there was a back part to that bathroom. That’s where Sarah was. Sarah was the sister to Addie Mae Collins, who was killed. Sarah was 12-years-old and we don’t know this for sure, but we think maybe her location and those big doors, steel doors may have had … played some role, may have played some role in her surviving.

Jim: She was still injured severely.

Carolyn: She was still injured. She lost an eye in that explosion. She had very limited vision in the other eye, and I think she had numerous cuts and abrasions of other sorts. The records indicate that she was hospitalized for three months.

Jim: Three months.

Carolyn: Yeah.

Jim: So, when the dust of all this settles, you talked to the FBI. They came to talk with you. What happened? What justice was served after it was all done?

Carolyn: There was no justice.

Jim: That’s amazing. When you talked to the FBI, how did that go? What did that look like?

Carolyn: I was frightened when they came to the house, but then with my parents sitting there, I just began to answer their questions. They wanted to know if I had seen anything unusual when I came in that morning. They wanted to know about things going on within the church.

One of the things that I mentioned, Mrs. Shorter, who was the person I worked under, Mrs. Shorter had indicated that she had received several phone calls before I arrived. And some of these things I had forgotten until I actually went back and got my FBI testimony.

But Mrs. Shorter indicated that she’d gotten these phone calls. She told me about them, but I was like, well, you know, she’s imaging things was really what I was thinking. But I think I did tell them about Mrs. Shorter. I also told them about the phone call, the three-minute phone call.

When I got my report, now I only received that report because I was subpoenaed to the trial of Bobby Frank Cherry. So, when I saw the report, some of the things that I had said were not in the report. But I was later told that some things that people said were missing, but also things people didn’t say were added.

So, you know, we don’t know if there was just some confusion in recording or what. I would never try to speculate on that. But I did tell them about the call. I did tell them what Mrs. Shorter had said that morning about the calls when she came in. They asked if I had any thoughts about anything that had happened and I didn’t.

Jim: Right.

Carolyn: I mean I was really at that point had no thoughts about it.

Jim: Oh, I’m sure, in shock and everything else and trying to make sure your brothers were safe. Later that day around the church, people from the community, the white community, were driving around the church chanting, “Two, four, six, eight … “

Carolyn: We don’t want to integrate.”

Jim: And in the end was that the issue? The bombing was done for that purpose?

Carolyn: Ultimately we think that the bombing was a response to court-ordered desegregation. We believe that because of the testimony that we heard in court. On one of the tapes that we listened to, one of the men was heard to say, “They just think they want to integrate, but wait until after Sunday morning and they’ll beg us to segregate.” So, that testimony in court led us to know that they were trying to stop this movement, if you will, or to intimidate the participants to the point where everyone would probably just kind of give up and go home.

Jim: Carolyn, as we’ve talked about the story and I know you’ve had to recount it. You’ve had to talk to the FBI. You’re 14-years-old. Tell me about the emotion that you were having. I mean, these were your friends as you described them. They’re there one moment and a moment later, they’re gone.

Carolyn: Uh-hm.

Jim: How did you process all of that? How did you understand why a person, regardless of their color, why would somebody want to bomb a church and kill innocent children over a federal court decision? I mean, it had to be beyond your reach emotionally to pull all those pieces together and try to make sense of it all.

Carolyn: It would take me a long time. That’s what the 20 years, I think, was all about, trying to understand and trying to determine how do we fix this? Is it fixable, you know? How do I move forward with my own life? You know, forget all the other stuff that has happened, but how do I just develop some meaningful life and relationship with people that I can go forward and function in and have a family in and so forth?

You know, I think it is important to note that at the time of the 16th Street Church bombing, there were over 80 unsolved bombings on the books in Birmingham.

Jim: Eighty.

Carolyn: Over eighty unsolved. These 80 unsolved bombings were all of either black homes, black churches or black businesses. It was this type of data that was frightening.

Jim: Oh, a chilling effect on the community. I mean, you couldn’t talk about anything.

Carolyn: What was chilling even more so was the fact that you could be sitting on your porch on any evening or just sitting on the curb as we often did in the evenings and you would hear a bomb explode, just somewhere out there. You never knew where it was coming from, but you would hear this “boom” sound. You know, you could hear it.

And then it always felt like the earth moved and everyone would get quiet. Wherever you were, everyone would get quiet, because we knew that within a few minutes the phone would ring and when the phone rang, they would say, “They just bombed a home of Rev. A.D. King, Dr. King’s brother,” or “They just bombed the A. G. Gaston Motel.” Or as we’re talking about today, “They just bombed the home of the 16th Street Baptist Church.” Rev. Shuttlesworth’s church was bombed three times.

Now after the bombing of the church in April of 1964, they bombed a house right across the street from where I lived. So, what was so frightening about all of this was that no one had ever been brought to justice. We never knew where the next bomb would explode, and prior to the church bombing, those over 80 unsolved bombings, no one had ever been killed. But now we have the death of four little girls.

It sort of represented to all of us that people were willing to do anything in the name of segregation. And that was the most frightening part about all of this. It was difficult to sleep at night, a lot of times.

Jim: Can’t imagine.

Carolyn: Loud noises, that just started a whole new era of things to think about.

Jim: Carolyn, we can’t end here and we’ve run out of time in day two, and we just can’t end here. We’ve gotta talk about the redemption and what God is doing and has done in your heart and in many hearts in this nation—both black and white. But there’s much more work to do.

Carolyn: Yes.

Jim: Let’s come back next time and put the God perspective on it, talk about the good things that are moving forward and if I could ask you one more time to stick with us and join us again.

Carolyn: I would be honored; thank you.

Jim: Let’s do that.


John: Carolyn McKinstry has been our guest for a second day and she’s been telling us about her experiences growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950’s and ’60s. My goodness, what she had to deal with.

You’ll learn much more about that time period and Carolyn’s life when you get a copy of her book called While the World Watched. Once you begin reading this, you won’t be able to put it down and some schools are making it mandatory reading for their students. So, please get a copy when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459. Or you can find out more and order it at We’ll send the book to you as our way of saying thank you, when you make a generous donation to the work of Focus on the Family. We’re a not-for-profit ministry. We rely on your generous gifts. And it’d be our privilege to make sure you get a copy of this important book.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team here, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. We’ll continue our Sanctity of Human Life Week programming and hear more from Carolyn McKinstry, as we help you and your family thrive.

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