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54 Strong: The Impact of Young Women During the Civil Rights Movement

In order to understand the diverse impacts that women had on the Civil Rights Movement, we need not look further than Birmingham, Alabama. In the early 1960s, Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the south and was a place where many civil rights organizers feared. In 1963, however, Birmingham would become the epicenter of the ongoing civil rights movement.

In mid 1963 civil rights activists would lean heavy on Birmingham with a campaign they called Project C, C for Confrontation. Project C focused on recruiting Birmingham students of all ages, and genders, to march in downtown protests against segregation. The girls and women of these protests were seen as the heart of the campaign, keeping the momentum going as students were met with mass arrests, high powered fire hoses, and police dogs. During the movement the girls would keep spirits up by leading songs and coordinating activities in the marches and in the jails. The efforts and successes of Project C in Birmingham would later be credited as paving the way for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Credit Jason Gilmore
Carolyn McKinstry

Later that year, in the shadow of the successes of Project C, 4 special little girls would unwillingly give the ultimate sacrifice to the cause of equal rights. On September 15th 1963, Addie May Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair were killed in a bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham. The savagery of the attack reverberated throughout the world and affected countless lives. One such life is that of Carolyn McKinstry who was 15 years old at the time and was in the church when the bomb went off.

“The memory that’s etched in my mind is that Sunday because we were all wearing white. It was youth day. Everybody was sort of bubbly and laughing and excited … I did not attend their funerals so the last image I have in my head is of that Sunday – everyone dressed in white, laughing and talking and preparing to come into the sanctuary. I’m glad that’s my last memory and I did not go to the funerals for that reason. I wanted that to be my last memory as opposed to the memories you would have at a funeral.”

McKinstry since has focused her life on finding ways to better understand how to bridge human difference and now works in ministry focused specifically on reconciliation.

“Forgiveness is not an option, it’s an imperative. But it’s also something very good for us because it is by letting go of that, that we can move on. When we carry those things around it’s like weight and it’s very difficult to do all of the things that you might be called to do. As in the case of the bombing of this church, I sat right in front of the bomber at the trial. I had to forgive him. He looked like somebody’s grandfather by that time – just a nice, old man. But I forgave him and I began to realize the importance of not carrying all of that extra baggage.”

Credit Jason Gilmore

Interviews on this segment were conducted by Jarlin De Leon from USU and Danish Mehboob and Laura Robles from the University of Washington in Birmingham, Alabama. Support for the USU Civil Rights Pilgrimage “54 Strong” is made possible in part by our members, the USU Access and Diversity Center and the USU Diversity Council – cultivating diversity of thought and culture, and serving the public through learning, discovery and engagement.