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Cherry’s story is one of strength, forgiveness

The agenda said, “Civil rights: A classmate’s story.”

We were in Selma’s Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church for a session of Leadership Alabama. Brown Chapel was the starting point for the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and, as the meeting place and offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the Selma Movement.

It’s unlikely that you know former classmate, Carolyn McKinstry. But most in Alabama know most of her story.

Carolyn is a Birmingham native, the granddaughter of a minister and daughter of an educator. Her chemistry-instructor father worked nights at a Birmingham country club, and was well aware of civil rights issues of the day. He was protective of his daughter, allowing her little time away from home.

As a result, she spent most of her time in church, where as a young teen she acted as Sunday School secretary, a job she began as a seventh grader. Like most of us who grew up in a church, she and her family believed hers was a very safe place.

Only it wasn’t.

Carolyn’s church was on 16th Street in Birmingham. Yes that one, 16th Street Baptist Church, the one in which four little girls died.

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair died on Sept. 15, 1963, when a box of dynamite placed under the church’s stairs by members of the Ku Klux Klan exploded.

Carolyn was the last person to speak to the girls, all of whom were friends. They were in a downstairs restroom when she greeted them, on her way upstairs to prepare for the service. As she passed the church office, the phone was ringing. When she answered, a male voice said, “Three minutes.”

Her family, she said, didn’t talk about what happened. The pain was too fresh and too real.

Despite her family’s protection, she was one of numerous children who was attacked with high-pressure fire hoses during the civil rights marches of 1963. And in 1964, she survived another bomb that was set off in her house.

For many years, she struggled with depression, but eventually overcame it. In 2002, 39 years after the bombing, she was called as a witness in the State of Alabama vs. Bobby Frank Cherry case. Cherry was convicted of four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

She said she chose to forgive Cherry and others. She helped raise more than $4 million to restore the church, and helped the church earn the national historic landmark status. She has become a minister, and authored a book, “While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement.”

I never read or hear anything about Birmingham’s role in the civil rights movement without thinking of her story. Such was the case this week when President Obama, in one of his last acts as president, named the Magic City’s civil rights district a national monument. A separate order designated a second national civil rights monument in Anniston.

It is fitting that the nation has joined those who have already worked to preserve the 16th Baptist Church and establish the nearby Civil Rights Institute in recognizing the efforts of those who fought for civil rights in Birmingham. It was poignant that the nation’s first African American president awarded the long-sought designation just before this year’s Martin Luther King holiday.