On September 15, 1963, a bomb killed four young African American girls in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were 14 years old; Denise McNair was 11. Twenty-two other people, including Addie Mae’s younger sister, Sarah, were injured in the terrorist attack, which was carried out by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, as it came to be called, was a grim turning point in the American civil rights movements, as even hardened segregationists (some of them, anyway) were appalled at the scale of violence directed at innocents.
Photographer Frank Dandridge was in Birmingham to cover the aftermath of the bombing; the funerals of the four murdered girls; and the almost inconceivably tense and volatile racial situation in the heavily armed town after the bombing. While there, Dandridge made a picture of 12-year-old Sarah Collins — bandages covering her injured eyes, cuts marking the spots where glass shards had torn her face — that became one of the signature photographs of the era: a portrait that captured, in one riveting frame, the bilious, lethal aggression that lay behind so much of the anti-integrationist rhetoric of the Deep South.
When LIFE magazine first ran the photograph in its Sept. 27, 1963, issue (see below), the editors not only called out the officially sanctioned atmosphere in Alabama that fostered such depravity, but also included what they called “a powerful condemnation from an unexpected source — a white Birmingham lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr.” Standing before a segregated meeting of the city’s Young Men’s Business Club, Morgan said of the bombing:
Sarah Collins (now Sarah Collins Rudolph) survived her injuries — but she lost one eye and today lives with pieces of glass embedded in the other. Now 62, she lives with her husband George not far from Birmingham, and is fighting for restitution from the federal government for medical expenses she incurred and for literally decades of suffering after the church bombing. In short, like thousands of other Americans have done (especially in recent years), she is seeking some sort of compensation as a victim of terrorism.
On September 10, 2013, Collins Rudolph attended a ceremony in Washington, where the four girls who were murdered in September 1963 were posthumously honored with a Congressional Gold Medal.
“It’s just such an awful, awful shame,” Collins Rudolph says, all these years later, “that it took that much violence for some people to finally wake up to what was happening in their own country.”