The small, brown woman in a sequined black dress and suede high heels mounted the stairs to the megachurch’s curved stage, leaning on the arm of her husband. The silver cross around her neck glinted in the spotlight as Sarah Collins Rudolph took her seat in an armchair on a February evening.
The auditorium at Peace Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., grew quiet. Hundreds of faces, almost all African American, tilted up expectantly.
“Let’s go to the very beginning of the day,” said the interviewer with the Greater Atlanta Black Prosecutors Association, who was seated in an armchair facing Rudolph.
And so Rudolph began rewinding her life to the hours just before the bombing by white supremacists that literally stopped the clock at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963.
To before her sister, 14-year-old Addie Mae, and three other black girls died in the explosion, shaming the nation and leading to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. To before 26 shards of glass pierced Rudolph’s slight, 12-year-old body, destroying the vision in her right eye and her dreams of becoming a nurse. To before it occurred to Rudolph that Alabama might owe her restitution and an apology for its role in her suffering. To before this gentle, indomitable woman became known as the “Fifth Girl,” a survivor of a notorious American hate crime who few knew existed until, at 49, she began to share her story.
Now, in a soft Southern accent from the stage, Rudolph recounted the hours before the clock froze on Sept. 15 at 10:22 a.m., 56 years ago.