Survivor of 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, Sarah Collins Rudolph, Speaks at USC Upstate

June 1, 2023 at 8:18 pm
Sarah Collins Rudolph speaks at USC Upstate Thursday, June 1, 2023.

No one would blame Sarah Collins Rudolph for harboring hatred for those who planted the bomb that killed her sister, Addie Mae Collins, 14, and three other young girls.

Although the blast left her visually impaired and caused her to miss her sister’s funeral, Rudolph has chosen a path of hope and optimism.

“I was angry for a long time,” Rudolph said. “I still want to know why? They hurt people who never hurt anyone. But I have forgiven them. And that is what we all have to do: learn the power of love and forgiveness.”

Rudolph, a survivor of the historic 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, visited the University of South Carolina Upstate on Thursday, June 1, 2023, for a special reception, author talk, and book signing.

The bombing, which occurred in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963, played a pivotal role in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Rudolph, who miraculously survived, shared her powerful story at the USC upstate Library and gave attendees a firsthand account of the experience and her memoir “The 5th Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16 Street Baptist Church Bombing.”

She was in the ladies’ lounge of the church when the bomb exploded, leaving her blinded by shattered glass. Randolph was rescued by a church deacon and hospitalized, becoming a living testament to the violence and struggle for civil rights during that era.

The bombing garnered national and international attention, prompting Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to write a poignant letter to the governor, holding him responsible for the loss of innocent lives.

“It was difficult writing this book, but I knew it needed to be written,” Rudolph said. “My hope is that young people today will read it and see how hard we fought for our freedom—to appreciate their freedom and to continue to fight for justice.”

Randolph’s visit was one of the events planned for the exhibition “Justice for All: South Carolina and the American Civil Rights Movement,” presented by the University of South Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research. The exhibition, which will be at the USC Upstate Library, 150 Gramling Drive, Spartanburg, S.C. 29303, through June 30, explores South Carolina’s role in the civil rights struggle and serves as an educational resource for visitors.

The exhibition has visited Columbia, Sumter, Orangeburg, and Hartsville. After Spartanburg, the traveling exhibition will visit other sites throughout South Carolina through December 2023. It is based on the 2019 archival exhibition “Justice for All” which the Center created collaboratively with South Carolina Humanities, the University of South Carolina Libraries, and the College of Arts and Sciences. The traveling version is supported with funding from the Williams Companies as part of a $1.5 million gift, and by South Carolina Humanities and Central Carolina Community Foundation.

Dr. Bobby Donaldson, professor of history and executive director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research, commended Rudolph’s resilience and emphasized the significance of her voice.

“Not many know of the larger struggle of the Civil Rights history in South Carolina,” Donaldson said. “Our goal is to provide the people, places, and platforms that preserve this history. When we opened the exhibit in 2019, we were fortunate to have Sarah Collins Rudolph there. Her story is riveting and powerful. We were very excited when she agreed to come to Spartanburg.”

“We are so appreciative to have this opportunity to speak with Sarah Collins Rudolph, to read her story, and to tour the Justice for All exhibit,” said USC Upstate Provost Pam Steinke, Ph.D. “It is through these words and images that we are reminded of the devastating effects of prejudicial hate and the courage of those who survive the violence it fuels.

Steinke added that stories like Rudolph’s and those told through the exhibit “knock us out of our human tendencies of complacency and avoidance, into a much more aware state that looks constantly for insights and opportunities to choose love over hate, to counter violence with global peace, and to fight injustice by advocating for justice for all.”

For more information about Sarah Collins Rudolph and her memoir, visit

Stay updated on upcoming events organized by the USC Center for Civil Rights History and Research by following their Facebook page: @uofsccrc. All events at USC Upstate related to the exhibition are free and open to the public.

Upcoming JFA Events

In addition to the USC Upstate Library event, the Spartanburg Public Library Main Branch’s Barrett Room will host a public program titled “Eyewitnesses: Memories of the South Carolina Civil Rights Movement” from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, June 2. Deedee Wright, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, and Brenda Lee Pryce, a former South Carolina state representative, will share their personal experiences during a panel discussion. The event will be live-streamed, and a light reception will precede the program at 5:30 p.m. Livestream details can be found on the USC Center for Civil Rights History and Research’s Facebook page.

Additionally, on June 2, Deedee Wright and Brenda Lee Pryce will visit the Upcountry Museum in Greenville from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. for a book signing event.

While a student at Greenville’s Sterling High School, Wright led or participated in major Civil Rights events of the city: the 1960 airport march; the library sit-ins that desegregated the city’s libraries; the landmark lunch counter sit-in that reached the U.S. Supreme Court as Peterson v. Greenville; and the 1961 Statehouse march, known for the Supreme Court case of Edwards v. S.C. that established an important First Amendment precedent.

Former state Rep. Pryce, a lifelong resident of Spartanburg, has written on the culture and history of the Southside neighborhood of Spartanburg. She represented Spartanburg in the state House from 1995 to 2005 and has earned honors for her leadership in the city.