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Witness to Alabama church bombing speaks to students
North Hall Middle School students listen to author Carolyn McKinstry share her experiences about growing up in Birmingham, Ala.


“Three minutes.”

That was the three-word conversation Carolyn McKinstry, then a 14-year-old Carolyn Maull, had with a mystery caller the morning of Sept. 15, 1963. When the caller hung up, she didn’t think much of it.

Placing the phone back in its cradle, McKinstry took about 15 steps into the adjoining room. Then the world irreversibly changed.

McKinstry, author of “While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement,” spoke Thursday about her experience that morning at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., to North Hall Middle School students.

“That was a really frightening experience,” she said, noting her primary concern was for her two brothers who were also inside the church at the time.

“We were responsible for each other,” she added. “My father had a rule in the house that if three people left home, three people had to return. There were six children in our family and if you left with any of your siblings, you had to come back that way.”

The church bombing is one of the more famous moments in the civil rights movement, known for causing the deaths of four young girls.

Emotionally recovering from the experience took years for McKinstry. Eventually, she began to realize her calling in life was to share not only her experiences on that day with the world, but also to share her philosophy of forgiveness.

“After my friends were killed, I really suffered from depression for a long time,” she said. “It was something that I would struggle with for a long period of time and eventually I worked my way into where I am today. Today I travel all over this country and outside of this country and talk about forgiveness, a lot.

“Forgiveness is primarily for you,” she added. “That’s the main thing I would say to you today. It frees you from the burden of whatever has happened.”

She spoke about when she was subpoenaed to testify in the trial of Bobby Frank Cherry, one of the men responsible for the 1963 church bombing. He was convicted of murder in 2002 for his role in the incident.

It was a situation that made her uncomfortable as she was put in the witness room with Cherry’s family members, but she said they were kind and polite to her.

Cherry received life in prison in 2002. He died in 2004.

“Nobody really wins in that situation,” McKinstry said. “But we did feel that justice was served.”

She also was one of the students who marched in the Children’s Crusade as part of the Birmingham Campaign, another well-known moment in the civil rights movement when segregationists used fire hoses and other violent means to suppress the marching African-Americans.

“I thought it was exciting,” she said. “Everything was exciting until they showed up with the fire hoses.

“If you’ve seen any of that footage, you’ll know that (then-Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety) Bull Connor had a little white army tank. They showed up with the army tank, and the firemen of the city showed up with the water hoses. At that point, it wasn’t really any fun anymore.”

Many of the students have read McKinstry’s book, and were eager to ask her their questions following her speech.

“I thought it was very inspirational,” student Megan Stephens said. “It made me want to forgive and love more.

“I think that the last passage, her quote, is what stood out to me more,” she added. “It made me want to forgive more and to love more, and I realize that we can all change the world together.”