Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Friday, 16 January 2009

What a black president means to me

Carolyn McKinstry was almost killed in a racist church bombing in segregated Alabama in the 1960s. The BBC's Matthew Price asks her what the forthcoming inauguration of America's first African-American president, Barack Obama, means to her.

Carolyn McKinstry was on her way through the church to its office when she saw the four girls through the open door to the washroom.

"Good morning," she said, and went upstairs.

Carolyn McKinstry
Dr King did tell us we might be faced by the dogs, that the policemen might spit on you... but the only appropriate response was always a non-violent response
Carolyn McKinistry
When she reached the top, the phone rang. Normally there would be an adult at the church and she would not have answered it.

That day, though, she picked up the receiver.

"Three minutes," said a male voice on the other end, before hanging up.

Carolyn McKinstry did not know that the church had previously received bomb threats.

The children knew about the tense situation in Birmingham of course, and across the state of Alabama and the whole of the South as well. Often, though, the adults did not tell them everything.

The call perplexed her. Then as she stepped out of the office, the bomb exploded.

"I remember thinking that I heard thunder, and as quickly as I thought that, the windows came crashing down. I fell on the floor. Probably I was there 10 or 12 seconds, and then I heard people running."

Six hours later - hours of fear and chaos, of anger and hatred - Carolyn McKinstry learned that the four girls in the washroom had not made it out.

Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wasley were all killed in the explosion.

Denise McNair was 11. The others were 14 years old, just as Carolyn McKinstry was on 15 September, 1963, the day white racists blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Institutionalised racism

Today, sitting in that same church, Carolyn McKinstry, speaks with the strength of someone who has faced down injustice, and survived with her dignity intact.

The city she grew up in, the state and the country too, have changed immeasurably in the past 46 years, and in ways she says she never imagined.

Ambulance attendants carry the body of a girl killed in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on 16 September, 1963
The bombing was one of the most notorious attacks of the civil rights era

When Carolyn McKinstry was growing up, state law segregated black people like her from white citizens.

She was forced to use separate schools, dine in different parts of restaurants, to live in different parts of the city.

As a child, she did not always notice the extent of it.

"It was clearly segregated. We were all aware of that, but our parents and our communities made every effort to make sure that we were not missing anything. We didn't miss what we didn't know about," she says.

She was 12 years old when she first remembers thinking about the institutionalised racism that then existed in Alabama.

Her grandfather had brought her grandmother to Birmingham, to try and find her a hospital bed.

"Hospitals did not accept black people, but we found a hospital to place my grandmother in. They placed her in the basement. It became my job as the youngest daughter to sit with her. I sat with her for two weeks until she died. I spent two weeks wondering why we were in the basement."

16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama
The church had received threats before the bombing
Birmingham, and to a certain extent its 16th Street Baptist Church, became the epicentre of the civil rights movement in 1963.

That was the year Martin Luther King Jnr and others came to the city.

"He told us that segregation was not the normal way of things," she says.

So she went to the mass meetings held at her church, where the civil rights leadership called on the black community to rise up against segregation.

"Dr King did tell us we might be faced by the dogs, that the policemen might spit on you. They might hit you, but the only appropriate response was always a non-violent response.

"When we did march, they brought the water hoses, and I remember thinking no-one had said anything about the water hoses. I remember being a little frightened, but I remember also thinking that... Birmingham was not the only place with segregation laws.

"It was not something you could run from, I did understand that."

Like thousands of others she did not run.

'Wonderful culmination'

Today, four decades after she almost lost her life because of the colour of her skin, Carolyn McKinstry still works at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

On Tuesday, she will walk the short distance downtown, a few blocks, into the city's auditorium, and there she will watch the big screens with awe as an African-American becomes president of her country.

"In Dr King's speech - his 'Dream speech' - he talked about being looked at and evaluated based on the merits of your character and your competence as opposed to what colour you were. I think that we've come just about full circle on that," she says.

"If you've lost friends along the way, if you've had friends killed through this journey, this is just a wonderful culmination. It says that they didn't die in vain. It brings true the words that Martin Luther King gave at the funeral of the four girls here.

"He said their blood might well serve as a redemptive force not just for Birmingham, but for America."

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