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

Air Date 01/21/2015

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Carolyn McKinstry discusses her experiences during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, including her survival of several violent clashes resulting from racial tensions. (Part 3 of 3) Also, Jim Daly talks briefly with Rep. Trent Franks about an important congressional vote to protect preborn babies which is scheduled to occur tomorrow, Jan. 22. 

Episode Transcript


John Fuller: Welcome to "Focus on the Family" with your host, Focus president, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller. Today, the conclusion of our visit with Carolyn McKinstry, who survived bombings and other violence in Alabama during racial tension in the 1960s. First though, an important announcement about some critical pro-life legislation that you can influence this week.

Tomorrow the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a very important bill, HR 36, which provides protection for preborn babies. Congressman Trent Franks from Arizona is a cosponsor and Jim spoke with him this week. Here's a portion of that conversation.

Drop-In: Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (U.S. Only)

Jim Daly: Tell me quickly, we only have a second here, what motivated you to do this? What's happening that we need to know about?

Congressman Franks: Well, this is probably one of the most significant opportunities we have ever had to show the humanity of the victim of abortion and inhumanity of what's being done to them. The Pain-Capable Bill represents the first time in history that we will have given affirmative protection to the unborn child in the United States Congress.

Jim: Congressman Franks, the other aspect is, it'd be great if both Republicans and Democrats understood the need to protect innocent life and that's what you're talking about and I so appreciate your heart, the heart of your colleagues there in the House and the Senate. That vote will be coming not long from now, as well.

This is simply your desire to protect the pre-born child, to limit abortion beyond 20 weeks. And we are for you, because we're for life. And I hope people in the House and the next step, the Senate will vote for it.

Congressman Franks: Right, and this would refocus America's attention. And I think that this could precipitate another major change in our country in that vein. And again, it's impossible for me to emphasize the judicial and the long-term political, and ultimately, the long-term protection that this means for the unborn child and their mothers.

Jim: And let me add the spiritual well-being of this nation. Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona, let me say thank you. Thank you for what you do, your colleagues are doing and let me urge everyone to contact your representative, to urge them to vote for this bill. And again, thank you very much.

Congressman Franks: Thank you all so much.

John: Now that vote is expected to take place tomorrow, so time is of the essence. Please right now, find the details about urging your congressman to support HR 36 at

End of Drop-In: Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (U.S. Only)

John: Last time on "Focus on the Family," our guest was Carolyn McKinstry and she described the frightening bombings that had been taking place for years in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s and '60s, when she was just a young girl.


Carolyn McKinstry: These 80 unsolved bombings were all of either black homes, black churches or black businesses. 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.

End of Recap

John: Well, we talked with Carolyn about one bombing in particular in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four of her young friends were killed and another was seriously injured. Thirteen other people were injured, as well and Carolyn survived the blast, but it left a scar on her soul for decades. Today you'll hear how Carolyn overcame through the power of forgiveness in Christ.

Jim: John, Carolyn McKinstry is a remarkable woman, who obviously loves the Lord and she has such a powerful message of hope for us today regarding racial reconciliation and forgiving others. It's so relevant for us today. She mentioned how, at the time of the church bombing, no one was brought to trial, mostly because of a lack of physical evidence and very few witnesses. It was 14 years before the first suspect, a Ku Klux Klan member was convicted of first-degree murder. Incredibly, the next trial didn't happen until 2001 and 2002. Think of the years there, when two more Klan members were convicted of first-degree murder.

John: Carolyn actually was testifying in one of the trials and we videotaped her talking about how she faced one of the accused and how God helped her to eventually forgive him and we've got that video at . Now after our last broadcast, we kept recording and here's the conclusion of her story. Carolyn is the author of the book, While the World Watched and we continue now with Carolyn McKinstry on today's "Focus on the Family."


Jim: Carolyn, welcome back to the program.

Carolyn: Thank you.

Jim: I was so moved at the end of the program last time, because you were talking about that feeling, that fear in Birmingham, when over 80 bombs had gone off over a period of time and you and others in your neighborhood, when you would hear that bomb, perhaps in the evening, the phones would then begin to ring and you would think, who's house has just been bombed? I can't imagine living with that kind of scenario. And I'm sure it's almost, if not post-traumatic stress syndrome, I mean, you were shell-shocked and that carried forward in your adult years in so many ways.

Talk about how you managed emotionally, trying to be a good person, to be a good Christian, yet all of this hate and animosity is coming towards your community, toward you, friends and neighbors, your four girlfriends had been killed in a bombing at your church. I don't think most of us can comprehend what you went through. Where were you headed now as a 14-15-year-old girl emotionally, spiritually? What was happening for you?

Carolyn: After the bombing of the church, I spent a lot of quiet time trying to sort through what had happened, trying to understand. And it was really after the bomb that exploded across the street from our house that I began this downward spiral.

I was awakened at about 3 o'clock in the morning. The night lit up like it was daylight, the bomb was so powerful. And then we heard all of these horrible screams, where the mother had run out of the house. She was trying to get everybody else out of the house. And it was that bomb, after the bombing of the church, that really began the downward spiral.

I was nervous. I was depressed. I think I had become convinced that this was how I would die, via one of these bombs. And somewhere in that period of time, I remember going to a house party that one of my friends had. And someone introduced me to wine. We didn't drink in our house. But what I noticed right away was that the pain wasn't as bad. When I drank the wine, I could forget about it for a little bit. And I could actually laugh and talk with my friends. And I remembered this feeling of being able to forget and put things aside. So, it began a period of wanting to blot out things.

Jim: Dealing with the pain.

Carolyn: Dealing with the pain. But you know, sometimes even it's residual pain, but even pain that may come as we continue to move forward. If you've discovered something that you think is a pain alleviator, you just continue to do that. And that was what I did. When I went off to college, I pretty much kept to myself. Whenever those things would bother me, I would just find some way to get a drink. I would go to parties and things and it was what I used to numb the pain, to blot it out of my mind and to not think about what was coming next.

Jim: Where were you with God at this time? What was your relationship with the Lord like?

Carolyn: You know, I had been baptized in the church. I had worked in every aspect of things that were available to young people. But I wondered where God was during all of this. Did He not see the suffering and the horrible things that were going on in our city? And I was wondering why He took my friends away, Denise, Cynthia, Addie and Carole. And I wondered why He would allow me to see that, to experience that without me also being taken with them.

Jim: Guilty, you felt guilty.

Carolyn: I felt guilty, yeah. I did and I just thought, I had so many thoughts that probably didn't make sense then and wouldn't make sense today.

Jim: And for those that didn't hear that, those are the four girls who were killed in the bombing at the church. You had just said hello to them in the bathroom—

Carolyn: Yeah.

Jim: --as you walked by. You went upstairs and the bomb went off, and you lost your friends. I do want to ask you about that resentment. It would be reasonable as a human being, not a spiritually enlightened human being, but as a human being, to say, "God I don't like You. What have You put me through and why?" How did you do that tough work with God to say, okay, I want to believe, help me. What did that look like for you?

Carolyn: There were a lot of "why's" for me. There were a lot of prayers. I remember praying one night. It was actually my husband that brought it to my attention that …

Jim: Jerome.

Carolyn: Jerome, yeah, he just acknowledged one day. He said, "You know," he had seen me just take a drink in the morning. And I think he recognized that, that was unusual, that people do social drinking, but if you've gotta start the day this way, and he brought this to my attention. He came home early one day, not early, actually he'd gone to work. He forgot something, came back home. I had a drink there, but I was also on the phone talking to the suicide hotline. And I was talking to them only because I had seen, well, in my mind, only because I had seen this advertisement on television and it said, "Are you lonely? Would you like someone to talk to?"

So, we were new to Atlanta. We were living there. His job had taken him there. And yes, I wanted someone to talk to. I had two little girls that really weren't of an age that I could really talk to them yet. And so, that's what I was doing when he walked in. And when he asked what I was doing and I said, "I'm talking to the suicide hotline, but I just wanted someone to talk to"—

Jim: Right, but he—

Carolyn:--is what I said to him.

Jim: --still … he had helped …

Carolyn: You know, but still, I think the bell went off in his head that people don't call those numbers when they want someone to talk to. At that point, I think I still felt that I didn't have an answer from God as to why many of these things had happened. I was a member of a church there in Atlanta, you know. But I still didn't feel that I had an answer from Him as to why these things had happened, why I survived, you know. And where was all of this pain continuing to come from?

Jim: Carolyn, I want to ask, because again, you're a person that has experienced some amazing things, horrible things. And there are so many people who are struggling today for a variety of reasons. It's not necessarily racial tension, although that could be part of it. But there's depression and suicide and so much weight in the culture today on people, particularly women. I think everyone feels it, but I think moms really feel it. What would you say to them about dealing with that kind of burden, not knowing if God is there? Fill in the noun for that, whatever it might be. How would you suggest to them that they try to get up today, try to engage God and try to put their left foot in front of their right foot?

Carolyn: Well, you asked for one word. I might use two. The first word might be "pray." The second word might be "submit." I came to understand what it meant to want to know His Word and then to submit to what it said, to understand that He was in charge in His providence, in His all-knowing, all-omnipotent Self. He knew and was aware of everything that happened and that there are things that had happened that we perceived as evil, that He could take those same things and allow good things to evolve from them.

You know, now over a period of time, I came to know a lot of things, but it started with that release, that submission, the praying and then just saying, "Okay, God, clearly I can't stop bombings if they're gonna happen. I can't stop anything that's going to happen." So, at some point I'm either going to lose my mind worrying about them, or I have to trust. I just have to trust You with the things that I encounter in life."

It was a slow process. There was a lot of pain that it took a lot of time to release and to relieve. But over a period of time, I think I mentioned that somewhere approximately in that 20 years, around the end of that 20th year was when it became kind of a renewed interest in this subject and in the things that had happened in Birmingham. And I began to talk with people at their request about what had happened.

Jim: And that was therapeutic, I'm sure.

Carolyn: It was very therapeutic for me. I began to receive invitations for people to come and say, well, not only tell us the story, but tell us where you've come from. Tell us how you managed to do that and how is it that you continue to do this? How is it that you keep going?

Jim: What is it and I think I know the answer, but I want to hear it from you. What is it in those people that would ask you that? What are they yearning for when they hear you? What do you think it is? I think it's hope.

Carolyn: I think it's absolutely hope. We all have had those moments when we just couldn't see what the next day would bring or how we would even make it to the next day. And then God sends someone in our path or He may do it Himself. But we have these moments where our hope is restored. Our faith is restored. Someone comes to us and either tells us their story or they may give us a biblical verse that says, "God is faithful." You know, He has promised never to leave us or to forsake us. He's faithful and just to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. So, whatever we need from Him, He's there to provide that.

Jim: And that is what really the point to be made here, and that is what people are attracted to you in you, is your testimony. Your testimony in Christ gives people hope that you can be literally beaten down, literally treated inappropriately, but on the other side of it, sticking with God, arguing through it with God, finding hope in God, finding forgiveness in God, that you will get through it. That's what's so wonderful about your story.

Carolyn: You've just done a perfect description of what happened in my life. I remember clinging to these words when Dr. King did the funeral for the services for the four girls. One of the things that he said was, "Unmerited suffering was redemptive and that God might well take the deaths." And not only the death of these girls, but other things that happened and use them to bring good to us, individually; to our country as a whole.

And I began to cling to that, as God allowed me to meet people and to see that the world was filled with wonderful people, godly people, people who believed in His Word, who believed …

Jim: Of all colors.

Carolyn: Of all colors, of all cultures, they crossed all socio-economic groups, all political groups. He just allowed me to see that Birmingham was a very small place in the context of the world that He had created. And then He allowed me to meet all of these wonderful people all over. And I saw that His work, His handiwork, in terms of the cities and the countries or the states that I visited. But I also saw it in the people themselves.

Jim: Let's turn at the last half of the program now and talk a bit about that forgiveness, how you got to that place and what we need to do today. We've got you know, still I believe, President Kennedy's words could be said today and still ring true.

Carolyn: Yes.

Jim: We're not there yet.

Carolyn: Not yet.

Jim: And I'd like to know, what do we do, just as believers in Christ? What can we do to make it better, to make this nation one nation under God?

Carolyn: Under God.

Jim: And for all people.

Carolyn: Well, I actually have several thoughts about that, but if I were to talk about forgiveness, I might use several quotes that I believe in. I start with a biblical quote, which says that, "To the same measure that God forgives us, we are required to forgive those around us." If we want to be forgiven, we must learn to forgive. I do believe forgiving is a discipline. We have to practice it. But it's required of us. If we're Christians, it is required.

God is there to heal and we have to know that there is not a future for us if we carry around this hatred. If we're not willing to let that go, what we're really saying is, God is not able to heal us and to make us the perfect human being that we can be when we walk with Him.

Jim: A friend of mine, Ted Cunningham on this broadcast, said something I thought fits here and it's very provocative and that is, unforgiveness and anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

Carolyn: I agree with that.

Jim: Wow.

Carolyn: Yes.

Jim: I mean that …

Carolyn: Wow, that's a power way to say it, too.

Jim: It is; it—

Carolyn: Yeah.

Jim: --it shows you the lack of rationale to it.

Carolyn: Yeah.

Jim: And that's what God's pulling us toward. Let's talk for a moment very boldly. I would really want you to speak honestly. What do we do moving forward in this nation to do better at racial relationships? How do we get beyond where we're seemingly stuck today, where young men in the black community don't seem to have a sense of dignity and purpose? How do we work together to help them better understand who they are in Christ and that they're made for a purpose?

Carolyn: You know, I think this is a very simplistic way of saying it, but I think we have to start over. I heard one minister say that we needed to just reteach our Bible to everyone. There is a way in which we all should walk if we say we're Christians. This is a Christian program, but even for those people who have not yet come into the faith, there is a way that we can walk so that they are convinced or they are persuaded to come and walk with us.

I think that all of the things that we're talking about are biblical disciplines, No. 1 forgiveness. It's not an option. There are things that God has given us in His Word that are not options. Compassion, we all need to develop an ethos of compassion. We encounter many situations where people are down on their luck for whatever reason. And if we can help, we do. If we can point them in the right direction, we do. But this has to be our mind-set.

And we always have to think in terms of reconciling one to the other. I think there's a passage in Romans that says, "Inasmuch as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men." So, if there's anything we can do to assist, to help, or to keep the peace, this is what God has called us to do. So, we have to look at each other as brothers and sisters, created in His image and then ask the question, "what would God do in whatever situation that we encounter?"

Jim: What advice do you have for us? Speak to me, someone in the white community. What can I do specifically? What should I not do to offend somebody in the black community? Help me better understand what I need to do.

Carolyn: I think that can be encompassed in our second greatest commandment, to love our neighbor as ourselves. In my home growing up, my father would say, "If you don't want it done to you, then you probably shouldn't do it to someone else." And I think that's just a very simple, but a perfect question to ask, where we're about to speak, when we're about to do anything, ask the question, would I like this? Would I like this message if it were given to me? Or would I like this activity, whatever is about to be done.

I think if we just put ourselves in the place of the other person, there's nothing magic about this. We are all spiritual beings. We're all created in His image. We should all respond to pretty much some of these good things. So, put myself in your place and ask that question.

I think if we all do that, if we just put ourselves in the other person's place, there are situations that we encounter today that were years in the making. And we know that sometimes we can't go back and undo or fix situations that began a long time ago, but we can start where we are today. What can I do today to support you or to assist you? How can I help you as you walk this journey? How can I help you along the way?

Jim: And I would—

Carolyn: Simple questions.

Jim: --and I would think one of the great things that we need to look at as a culture is how to befriend one another.

Carolyn: Absolutely.

Jim: You know, they say the greatest segregation that occurs today is Sunday morning in our churches. We in the Christian community could do such a better job of getting to know people that are outside the comfort zone. And you know, what's wonderful about that is how God shows up and you go, wow! I had no idea that would be so easy, or so good, or so fun, or whatever it might be. And that, you know, it just takes a little bit of effort.

Carolyn: I think that's a marvelous observation that you just made. Dr. King referred to it as the most segregated hour in America. But it certainly doesn't have to be today. And I do know that at least in Birmingham and I'm sure around the nation, that we have a lot of interfaith exchanges. People come together at Thanksgiving.

And the message we hope will be reconciliation, just learning as you said, to just live with people who are different from us, but just learning to be neighborly.

Jim: Well, and I can only say, you know, doing the international work at Focus for all the years and traveling to Asia and Africa, the amazing thing, we noticed the differences, but our commonality, especially around family, husbands and wives, moms and dads who want to do it well, especially for Christians who want to honor the Lord in those relationships. We have far more in common than what…

Carolyn: Than we have differences.

Jim: Absolutely.

Carolyn: And it is our diversity that makes us as rich as we are here as a nation. We need to embrace that. We need to expand it and I absolutely agree. We have wonderful things to share with each other.

Jim: And here's the bottom line. God made it this way.

Carolyn: Yes, He did.

Jim: Let's honor Him--

Carolyn: Yes.

Jim: --by treating each other with that respect—

Carolyn: Amen.

Jim: --in the way He made us. Carolyn McKinstry, man, this has been a great three days and I have so enjoyed it. I feel like I've met a new friend. And I appreciate that, your book, While the World Watched, it's a powerful story. It is a teaching opportunity and a learning opportunity. No matter what you're dealing with, it doesn't have to be racial tension. What Carolyn has done in this book is to talk about deep sorrow, deep pain and God's path forward and for that, I'm very grateful. Thank you, Carolyn.

Carolyn: Thank you very much.


John: It really has been quite a remarkable few days of programs here at Focus on the Family and they're really central for us, as this is Sanctity of Human Life Week, we recognize all life as sacred and made in God's image. And we're so grateful Carolyn could be a part of this series.

Now her story is told in the excellent book that Jim just mentioned, While the World Watched and we have that for you here at Focus on the Family as our thank-you gift when you donate in any amount financially to this ministry. Call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or visit . And while you're there, see the video of Carolyn that we mentioned earlier.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and made possible by generous listeners like you. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow. We're going to offer some hope for the woman who's facing an unplanned pregnancy, as we help you and your family thrive.

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Carolyn McKinstry

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A peaceful demonstrator during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Carolyn McKinstry survived several violent clashes of that era, including the white supremacist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on September 15, 1963. Today she speaks to young people about her experiences and has authored a memoir titled While the World Watched. McKinstry has served as Second Vice President and Program Committee Chair for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for the last six years, and she served for ten years as President of the Board of Directors of the Sixteenth Street Foundation, Inc., whose mission is the ongoing maintenance of the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church facility. McKinstry has also been involved in numerous other volunteer activities and organizations.