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What Does America Owe the Victims of Racial Terrorism?

On the 60th anniversary of a K.K.K. bombing, Sarah Collins Rudolph is still seeking restitution.

Rudolph was 12 at the time. That day, the blast sprayed her body, including her eyes, with glass. She was found standing, stunned, in the rubble. She was rushed to a hospital. One eye was lost, but the other was saved, with glass still in it, the doctors afraid of removing it and taking the chance of plunging the girl into total blindness.

When she was told that the other girls had been killed, she told me, “I wanted to cry but all I could do was feel so hurt about it because I know that by my eyes being as it was, I couldn’t cry like I wanted.”

On her coffee table today is a picture of her at the time, in a hospital bed, her face scarred, with patches over both eyes. There is something in me — maybe the father, maybe just the human — that wants to soothe the child in that photo; to hold on to her, to cry over her.

Just days before the bombing, Gov. George Wallace complained that “white people nowhere in the South wanted integration,” and that what was needed instead was “a few first-class funerals.”

With the killing of those girls, Wallace got just that. Thousands attended their funeral and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had sent Wallace a telegram excoriating him — “The blood of our little children is on your hands” — delivered the eulogy.

But Rudolph couldn’t attend because she was still in the hospital. For her, proper mourning was long delayed. Her trauma was enveloped by silence.

She explained to me that shortly after being released from the hospital, she was sent back to school “in a terrible situation” because she “didn’t get any counseling or anything.” Most of her classmates were sent away, out of fear, to live with relatives, and her own mother rarely spoke of what had happened beyond occasionally introducing her as “my baby that was in the bomb on 16th Street Church.”

She didn’t talk about the bombing until one day in her 40s, she said, when a preacher told her that he could see she had “a nervous condition” and “he told me that God was going to heal me.”

Since then, she has been speaking out, petitioning for what she believes she is owed: restitution from the state for her pain and suffering.

But it hasn’t come. Rudolph says that the only thing she has received after decades of medical bills is help from the county to replace her prosthetic eye, which she says was valued at $2,000.

Her husband, George Rudolph, interjected at one point in our conversation, his frustration with the situation apparent: “Right now, she still has to go to the eye doctor and pay out of her pocket. That shouldn’t be.”