1963 Birmingham Bombing Survivor to Share Her Story at SMU

Junie Williams, who survived a church bombing that killed her sister, speaks here Thursday as part of Black History Month.

Junie Collins Williams

By Denise Gee
SMU News

Junie Collins Williams
Junie Williams
DALLAS (SMU) — It’s taken Junie Williams nearly 40 years to find any semblance of closure and peace after her sister, Addie Mae Collins, died with three other little girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. She’s just now willing to talk about her journey toward forgiving—but not forgetting.

Her story of survival — and the civil rights-struggle lessons she believes are important for today’s younger generations to understand — will be front and center during “Journey to Peace: An Eyewitness Account of the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing” on Thursday, Feb. 17, at 7 p.m. in SMU’s McCord Auditorium. The event, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program in collaboration with SMU’s Association of Black Students. Williams’ visit is part of SMU's observance of Black History Month.

Victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing
Victims of the church bombing.
On Sept. 15, 1963, one of the most heinous hate crimes in American history took place when the Ku Klux Klan, outraged with the desegregation of Birmingham’s schools, orchestrated the bombing of the predominantly African American downtown church. Not only did Addie Mae perish, but Williams had to identify her body. Another sister, Sarah Jean Collins, lost her eye in the attack.

The last remaining terrorists responsible for the bombing were prosecuted in 2001, but Williams struggled with feelings of hatred for decades. She leaned on the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King to help accept a nonviolent stance. She also leaned on her family’s powerful belief in God—instilled in her at an early age—to help embrace forgiveness as an important guiding principle in life.

“I could have let this situation get the best of me, but through God’s work in me, I pushed my way through until what seemed to be a burden around my head was pushed off,” she says. “God took a day that was meant for evil and turned it around for the good of all.”

According to SMU Human Rights Program Director Rick Halperin, hate crimes, such as last year’s church burnings in east Texas, have risen 8 percent since President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. That number continues to jump 4 percent each year, he says.

It’s obvious that America’s struggle with accepting race and other human rights, is not over, Halperin adds. “That’s the real message of (Williams’) visit. This country is nowhere near the fully accepting nation that it could become. It’s better, but better doesn’t mean sufficient.”

Williams, who recently moved to San Antonio, believes there is hope for healing in America: “I know, because I have been healed.”

In talking about those who have committed hate crimes, Williams deeply believes that “forgiveness comes from the heart,” she says. “People who do those things must have fears, problems within themselves, and lack of understanding.”

The 1963 Birmingham church bombing
Scene from the church bombing.
Though she will be talking about her family’s tragedy during Black History Month, to her the idea of a month dedicated to the subject is relatively fresh for her. “I never participated in Black History Month in the past due to my pain and struggling.” She has decided to participate in Black History now primarily because people like SMU’s students, a diverse mix that exists in large part because of the Civil Rights Movement, probably do not know what took place all those years ago. “I want them to be appreciative of all the rights we fought for,” she says. “I don’t want all that we went through to be in vain.”

Read more about that fateful day in Williams’ life, by visiting useekufind.com/peace/eyewitness.htm. And for more details about SMU’s human rights initiatives, visit smu.edu/humanrights or call 214-768-8347.

Alex Pegram contributed to this story.