Summary: It is important to remember that it was normal every day people, not just civil rights heroes that participated in the Civil Rights movement.
A few weeks ago, my pastor, while talking about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus, mentioned that in seminary in the 1980s one of his professors suggested that within 20 to 30 years, once the survivors of the Holocaust started to die off, people would increasingly question whether the Holocaust actually happened. And now about 30 years after that professor’s aside we can see that Holocaust deniers are increasing around the world. My fear is that we will start having a similar denial of Civil Rights horrors.
It is one reason that I think that While the World Watched is an important book. Carolyn Maull McKinstry was a good friend to and the same age as the four girls that died in the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. She had left the bathroom where the girls died only a minute or so before the bomb went off.
Over the first several chapters, McKinstry slowly tells the story of that morning in short snippits while giving background to her life and community before that day. I think the method isn’t a bad one, because the reader is picking up the book because of that day. But in order to really understand the day, we need to have context to understand what was really happening. So the first four chapters are a little slow in unfolding the overall story.
But once that central story of the book is told, if anything the book becomes even more important. Carolyn Maull McKinstry was just an average 14 year old. She was born into an educated family (both of her parents and both of her mother’s parents had college degrees). Both of her parents worked with good jobs. But this is a story of an average girl. She did not have a special seat at the Civil Rights movement’s table.
Part of the story of this book is the story of how children and teens were affected by the violence and unrest. Carolyn participated in the Birmingham Children’s March (something I had heard of but didn’t really know much about.) More than 2000 children and teens were arrested and most were imprissoned in pig barns and some of those stayed there for more than 2 weeks, with no bathroom facilities or beds and only one meal a day provided. Then when released each was questioned individually and many were released in the middle of the night miles from their homes without any notice.
Just a couple months after the bombing, JFK was assasinated. A couple months later there was another bombing, this time Carolyn’s neighbor, which blew out her own windows and damaged many of the homes in the neighborhood. This was in addition to the normal fears and troubles of living in a segregated community.
But what may have been more important was the damage to the hearts and minds of those around the civil rights movement. Carolyn recounts her own depression and trauma and eventual decent into alcoholism as an adult. Her younger brother stopped speaking for a long time, never married and died before he was 50 and she attributes much of that to his own trauma.
But talking about death and pain was not something that was done. Carolyn says that she never talked to her brother about why he was so withdrawn and quiet before he died in 2000. And no one talked to them as children about the bombing or their own feelings or pain. And although she does not directly say it, it seems that was one of the reasons that she decided to write this book was to work through her own pain and put words to paper.
There is redemption in this story, while they are very different stories, this book reminds me a lot of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. There is a similar arc of redemption to the story. And I think it would be a good companion to Mark Noll’s history book God and Race and in American Politics. Carolyn Maull McKinstry now lives in Birmingham, she is the head of the 16th Street Church Foundation, has gone to seminary and now speaks regularly about reconciliation and forgiveness.
One of the things that makes this particularly good on audiobook, is that it is very conversational in tone. The narrator, Felicia Bullock, sounds like she is simply telling the listener her story. There are also a large number of extended quotes from speeches, sermons, songs and other documents of the era. I have a tendency (a bad one) to skim long quotes. But in audiobook there is greater context and voice to those quoted sections and I can’t easily skip over them. And when it is a song, it is sung beautifully.
A few other reviews have suggested that the book is too disjointed or needs editing. But I think the strength of this book is that it is not overly polished in a way that makes it feel less directly connected to the events or to Carolyn’s own story. There is pain and reality that comes through the story and the extended quotes from original sources that gives context in a way that could not be achieved any other way.
If you have any interest in history, civil right or just remembering the reality of our American story, pick this up while it is free. If you miss the free audiobook, the kindle edition can be borrowed from the Kindle Lending Library or Lendle.me.