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OU honors survivor of 1963 Alabama church bombing with honorary nursing degree

Posted at 12:00 AM, May 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-06 00:00:39-04

(WXYZ) — There are crucial moments in America that have changed the course of history, and the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama is one of them.

Four little girls were killed, but a fifth girl who managed to survive the blast after watching her sister be killed is not only shedding light on the ordeal but she was just honored by Oakland University for her courage.

Sarah Collins Rudolph was just 12 years old when the bomb went off. She is seen in a photo at the time with her eyes bandaged shut.

Post-traumatic stress disorder would keep her from talking about the bombing for 23 years.

"What do you remember? I asked her this week as she was honored by OU.

"My sister and I went into the basement. It was in the lounge," Rudolph said.

A bomb was secretly stashed outside the basement window. Her sister, Addie, was inches from the other three little girls and helped one tie her dress sash.

"That's when the bomb went off. Boom. She didn't even finish tying it," Rudolph said.

Shards of glass pierced her eyes and the stairs were blown away

"When it went off I started calling my sister, Addie. She did not answer," Rudolph said.

Blinded by the bombing, a church deacon carried Sarah to an ambulance. She spent two months in the hospital.

"When you realized you couldn't see at all out of one eye, what were you thinking as a little girl?" I asked.

"I was angry for the fact they had placed a bomb and killed those girls," she said.

Oakland University honors Sarah Collins Rudolph

It pushed forward the Civil Rights Act and changed voting laws, but Sarah was left paralyzed with fear, and unable to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse.

"Why did you want to be a nurse?" I asked.

"I would see my mother come home. She was a practical nurse," she said.

Sarah's story has been featured in a documentary by Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee and in the book "The Fifth Little Girl," and Sarah co-wrote a children's book about her life. But her cries for restitution for her injuries from the state of Alabama have gone unanswered.

"People always say I should have already got restitution because they know what went on in Birmingham," she said.

Recently, she got a call from Oakland University. She and her husband, a Vietnam veteran, were invited to Michigan.

The university's nursing program was awarding Sarah an honorary nursing degree.

"I'm just so honored to have her here she is a part of our history," School of Nursing Dean Judy Didion said.

Sarah Collins Rudolph speaks after honor from Oakland University

Sarah's mom passed away in 1990, but her legacy lives on in Sarah. She said her mother would be so proud.

"I just really believe in my heart that they was led by God to do this for me and I am so excited," she said.

While it took years to bring the men to justice who killed her sister and three others, she has since forgiven them and has a message for those who harbor hate.

"Hate is of the devil, love is of God, so that's what we need to do," she said.

In 2020 Collins lobbied for and received, a formal apology from Gov. Kay Ivey on behalf of the state of Alabama for not doing more to prevent the bombing.

Her petition for restitution was not answered.