On Sunday, September 15, 1963, a 14-year old Carolyn McKinstry witnessed an event that would change her life forever – the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The incident killed Carolyn's four friends - and would become an recurring topic of conversation and lasting mark on America's history to this day. She saw the girls in the bathroom on her way to the church office, and is thought to have been the last person to have them alive, just moments before answering a phone call in the church office.
The voice on the other end said “Three minutes” – and then hung up.
“I really didn’t get it,” says McKinstry, who was in St. Louis recently to speak with high school students at Confluence Academy. McKinstry also acted as church secretary, and was was juggling materials in her hand at the time.
The church had received bomb threats in the past, says McKinstry, and the heightened awareness wasn’t communicated to the kids who attended the church. “Children truly were children in that day, and those were not discussions they had with us,” she says.
The aftermath of that event would mark a definitive chapter in both McKinstry’s life and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Growing up in Birmingham during that time, bomb threats and fear were simply a way of life. It wasn’t uncommon for her family to hear the sound of a bomb going off and then wait for the phone call to follow as to what just happened.
“We thought it was normal,” she says of the chaos. “We didn’t know why it was normal, but it happened so much that we did think it was normal. We remind people that terrorism did not start with 9/11, that terrorism was a way of life for us in Birmingham.”
As an adult, she endured years of depression in coming to terms with the events of her young life. She finally received insight about the situation after viewing a play about the bombing that was centered on the perspective of the four young girls. “At that point, I had already kind of established in my spirit a purpose for why I was not killed that day,” she says, but saw the play as an “affirmation” of her calling to talk about how “only love can dispel hatred and what happens when we teach hatred.”
Now 64, the author, minister and public speaker is telling her story on a worldwide platform in order to keep the history alive and demonstrate what can happen when unnecessary hate is allowed to dictate one’s world. In 2011, her memoir “While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes Of Age During The Civil Rights Movement,” was published. McKinstry says the book is her way of trying to leave the world in a better place.
“I think there’s a great portion of our nation who really would like to see themselves healed,” she says about moving forward. “All of the good things that we know about and read about in terms of how we should treat each other – those things have to be done by us. We become the mouthpieces, we become the hands and the feet of the work that accomplishes the healing and the reconciliation.”
“And I think when there’s a message of healing, a message of reconciliation, people really want to hear that message, they want to have that conversation.”