This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
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History class came to life in West Philadelphia on Wednesday.
A survivor of one of the most brutal attacks of the civil rights era shared her harrowing tale with students from Paul Robeson High School.
In 1963, 12-year-old Sarah Collins Rudolph had no illusions about the palpable pulse of racism in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
"In those days, the Ku Klux Klan used to drive around in bunches," she said. "They’d put those robes on. And light fires and burn crosses."
But nothing could have prepared her for what happened one Sunday morning in mid-September of that year at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Before a captivated audience of history students who gathered in the Robeson auditorium, Collins Rudolph recalled the moment when her life forever changed.
"That’s when the bomb went off," she said. "I heard the sound. ‘Boom.’ And I just jumped all of a sudden. And said, ‘Jesus.’"
Collins Rudolph was one of five young girls who were putting on church robes near a stairwell where the Ku Klux Klan had hidden sticks of dynamite.
Her 14-year-old sister, Addie Mae, had also been nearby.
"And then I called out her name," she said. "’Addie! Addie! Addie!’ But she didn’t answer."
In the wake of the blast, Collins Rudolph couldn’t really tell what was going on because glass from a nearby window had exploded into her face.
A church deacon rushed to the scene and helped her out of the building and into an ambulance.
Addie Mae was killed, as were three other young girls. Twenty-two others were injured, including Collins Rudolph, who was left permanently blind in her right eye.
Afterward she struggled to overcome the tragedy. She became more shy and struggled through school. After the church was rebuilt, she couldn’t bring herself to return.
"I was still fearful," she said, "thinking that another bomb would go off."