Sarah Jean Collins had been forgotten too. “Who is that?” you might ask. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard about her myself when I was in Birmingham. Good old Google helped me learn the story of this woman who had been forgotten for over 50 years. You may recognize her 14 year-old sister’s name, Addie Mae Collins, one of the four girls who died in the church bombing. What you probably didn’t know is that there was a fifth girl trapped under the rubble who actually survived. And that was Sarah Jean Collins.
How is it possible that a young girl who has been plagued with health problems and chronic pain ever since the bombing 52 years ago has been forgotten by the entire world? Sarah Jean survived, truly a miracle when you look at the picture Life magazine published of her immediately following the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. (originally published in Life Magazine, September 27, 1963)
Someone was obviously trying to shed some light on her story by printing this photo. Yet, the multiple surgeries resulting from the glass shards that injured her eyes and tore the skin off her face, not to mention the chronic health issues she has had to endure over the years, haven’t been visible to anyone. When I think about my own diagnosis, I am grateful that I have health insurance. Perhaps, that’s part of my white privilege. I don’t know. And while five years of immense pain seems like a long time in my world, fifty-two years is incredible. She was only 12 years old when the bomb exploded in the church basement. To be a child with all of these painful issues and to carry them with her all these years without anyone’s support is unacceptable!
After 50 years of working jobs that did not offer health benefits, she finally asked the Birmingham City Council for help in 2012. Instead of taking the opportunity to focus on doing good in light of the traumatic events that would be commemorated in Birmingham the very next year, when she finally made the request for her hometown to make reparations, Mayor William Bell replied, “…nor are we legally obligated to.” Really? What about being morally obligated? While I realize that his statement may not have had anything to do with race since he’s a black mayor talking about a black woman, I do believe that a white child would’ve had a better chance of getting the care she needed.
I also have to wonder, if her story was just being made public now after 52 years of chronic suffering, would someone stand up and fight for her if she was white? Why didn’t she get a Congressional medal like the four girls who died, including her sister? Was it because she survived that this life-altering tragedy didn’t seem like something needing to be rewarded? Isn’t that even more of a reason to give her a medal and have her tell her story? Did Sarah just give up fighting because she felt defeated, or did her injuries make it so that she only had the energy to endure her pain each and every day? So many unanswered yet important questions for this victim of the hate crimes committed in the name of race. The last words of the NPR interview have continued to haunt me ever since I first heard it, in reference to her staying home during the 50th anniversary activities that took place in Birmingham in 2013. “It’s all she feels up to, she says, after 50 years forgotten.”
My Hope: None of us should ever feel forgotten. We are each meant to be seen, whether it be the people I’ve talked about in these three related posts or the places that are now in dire straits because the people are no longer there to support the community. My hope is that you and I will help people feel visible every day of our lives: smiling at a stranger, saying hello to a stranger, waving to a person who is homeless even if you are unable or unwilling to offer money or food, saying a kind word to an acquaintance or even a good friend, asking the cashier at a store or the person on the other end of the phone what is/her name is so you can use their name while speaking with them…The ideas are limitless! Acknowledge at least one different person’s life every day, and I guarantee it will make a difference, not only in that person’s life but in yours, as well.
Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the Beloved Community where everyone loves and supports one another. But it does no good to just dream about it. As Congressman John Lewis wrote, “Where are the students themselves, the young people? Why aren’t they out in the street and up on the ramparts demanding these changes (that would directly affect their opportunities for higher education)? This is their future we are dealing with here. Why don’t they take it into their own hands? You cannot wait for someone else to do it.” I am positive that Representative Lewis would say that same sentiment to all of us in regards to life in general. Just because I’m not starving doesn’t mean I need to wait for someone who is starving to do something about the millions of people who starve every day. And just because I’m not black doesn’t mean I need to wait for someone who is black to do something about eliminating racism. Even though I have a disability, it doesn’t mean we have to wait for someone with a disability to finally make a difference in getting the support we need from our communities and our government. But this is the way people think. Someone else always needs to do it first.
Last weekend I was at an event where racism was the key topic of discussion. When asked what our next steps should be to bring about racial justice, a room full of white people mostly agreed when one person said, “We need to follow. We can’t be the leaders.” Now while I don’t believe a group of white people should tell a group of black people what to do, I believe it’s all of our jobs to be leaders, to take action. And while I don’t want someone without a disability to make all the decisions that will affect us directly, this doesn’t mean that person can’t begin the conversation. Take one step towards creating that Beloved Community. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do; it’s our obligation to act now.
The idea of a leader that was promoted within the nonviolent faction of the Civil Rights Movement was best described by John Lewis at the end of his memoir, Walking with the Wind. “A person doesn’t become a leader simply by assuming a position, filling a chair or earning a title. A real leader doesn’t see himself as standing out in front of the people. He sees himself as standing beside them, among them. He doesn’t tell people to dig a ditch; he gets down in the ditch with them and helps dig it himself. That’s why people believe so strongly in and follow so faithfully a figure like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, or Nelson Mandela–because they spent their entire lives getting down in the ditch and digging.” This is what each one of us should be doing, not by ourselves, but with the people around us, engaging in conversations with those beside us on how to dig more efficiently so that we can then try these new ideas. While some of us may not be able to physically dig as deep, we have a lot to offer in other ways. It’s our obligation (each and every one of us!) to dig side by side, to make visible the injustices in the world, and to solve these problems in a way that finally produces the Beloved Community. Because this is the only way we will create a world where no one will ever feel forgotten again.