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Friday, November 22, 2013

Book Review: While the World Watched

While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age During the Civil Rights Movement by Carolyn Maull McKinstry is one of those books I believe everyone should be required to read in school. In a way, it’s a pity it came out so late. Copyrighted 2011, it tells the story of Birmingham—what really happened—from the eyes of a survivor. I’d call her a victor.

My personal parenthesis: I grew up in the South, and I’d guess you’d say it was segregated back then. But, honestly, this book was a shocker. I had no idea about what was going on in Birmingham. I couldn’t have told you one Jim Crow law. I thought we were segregated in our schools merely because whites lived mostly in the suburbs and blacks in the city. I remember when busing started in Richmond, VA, though it didn’t affect us much. There were only one or two black children in our school of maybe 600. They were as normal as the rest of us, and I don’t think anyone ever made a big deal about it. I had heard about segregated water fountains and restrooms, but never saw them. I certainly had never heard that blacks couldn’t get served at a dime store eatery. Both of my parents had friends who were varied colors. The idea of “color” was a non-issue in our home. I do remember when I was maybe ten going to the funeral of one of my dad’s acquaintances. My mother and I—Daddy must have been out of town—were just about the only white people in the crowd. I remember feeling “different,” but not “out-of place.” It wasn’t until I was married that I saw segregation up close. I worked in a factory for a short time, and the people only ate with people of their own hue. I had a friend who worked with me, but she could not break tradition and sit with us white girls at a meal. I truly didn’t understand. It was close to this time that my husband and I were out one night, driving somewhere, and we happened upon a Ku Klux Klan meeting. They were dressed in those pointy hoods. It was one of the scariest things I ever saw. It was probably the only time in my life that I was thankful to be white. A cross was burning, and these people were looking in our car. Years later, our family was in Birmingham on business, and our host took us to the State Capitol. Nearby, he pointed out the plaque on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and told us about the little girls who had perished there. Little girls . . . . It made me sick.

Carolyn Maull McKinstry’s book is wonderful. I understand better than ever why Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to involve young people in his marches and why he was so passionate about changing things. They needed to be changed.

Carolyn tells how her parents shielded their children from hatred and even from segregation. They understood how things were, but they didn’t feel the hate. That is one of the reasons when the bomb went off that Carolyn was left so traumatized. She went into depression, then drink. It was too much to handle. (In those days, they didn’t have counselors to talk to people about their traumas.) Carolyn’s family and community carried on. It was all they knew to do. And so, Carolyn suffered alone. Carolyn had been the one who answered the phone and heard the message “Three minutes.”

Carolyn shares about the years before and after the bombing. She tells how the perpetrators were charged but not punished. One did go to jail later, and Carolyn faced him in court.

This is a powerful Christian book. It’s about forgiveness and restoration. It’s also about civil rights—that everyone is valuable, made in God’s image. It’s about love and hate, justice and injustice. It’s about suffering, but it also has hope for victory. Carolyn’s Christian faith and her loving and patient husband brought her through those dark years, and now, she is ready to help others.

This book contains lengthy quotations from speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and a few of the other civil rights leaders. It has a section in the back of some of the Jim Crow laws.

I believe you will profit much from this book, whoever you are. This is definitely a recommendation.


  1. Sounds like a very moving book.

    1. I loved it. The author is a lady I'd like to meet. Truly lovely.


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