Book Review: While the World Watched

'While the World Watched' is not just the coming of age story of a fourteen year old girl in the American South during the Civil Rights movement, it is a coming of age story for each one of us.

This eye witness account takes the blinders off to any self-protective ignorance. Awareness removes the veil of silence and forces us to face the truth.

‘Within the span of a decade, I had watched my beloved grandmother die in the basement of Princeton Hospital, I had survived two bombings, I had seen four friends murdered, and I had lost three compassionate leaders to assassins’ bullets: John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert F. Kennedy.’

Awareness makes us acknowledge.

It is not enough, but it is a start.

On September 15, 1963, the Klu Klux planted a bomb in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Fourteen-year-old Carolyn Maull answered the cryptic phone call in the church office: ‘Three minutes.’

That mysterious warning signalled the explosion, killing four of her friends, Denise, Addie, Carole and Cynthia, in the girls' rest room she had just exited. It was one of the inciting moments of the Civil Rights movement and the turning point in young Carolyn’s life.

‘Not many people can pinpoint the exact date, time and place they grew up and became an adult. I can. It was September, 1963, 10:22am at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.’

‘Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.’ [Robert F. Kennedy]

Carolyn’s story, told matter-of-factly, invites the reader into her world and we get a better appreciation for the struggle faced by black Americans over the last half-century. She does not apologise for her frankness and it is that frankness which makes one realise how much of history is untold, hidden or overlooked.

She writes: ‘I’ve learned in the years since [the church bombing] that some moments in history and in our lives go away. The issues we understand easily and the fears we resolve quickly fade into the past. They get filed away into a memory cabinet marked, “closed.”’

Carolyn’s eye witness account and childhood exposure to blatant injustice, prejudice, overt bigotry and discrimination is an eye opener. The realisation of the depth of hatred against black people in Alabama in the 1960s which mandated the Jim Crow segregation laws and motivated actions and behaviours is shocking. Birmingham [aka ‘Bombingham], Alabama was known as the most segregated city in America.

‘I knew my history,’ Carolyn writes, ‘and it scared me. But it didn’t shock me anymore. In my teenage mind, I was starting to see that it had become the “American way.”’

'We can, by laws, change the outside, I thought. But we can’t so

easily change people’s hearts. How do we change the inside?’

[Carolyn Maull Mckinstry]

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the four girls who died in the bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 was a sobering call for justice but with a thread of hope: ‘History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.’

Forty years after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing and the deaths of Denise, Addie, Carole and Cynthia, the defence for the Klu Klux Clan member (Bobby Frank Cherry), who murdered those girls by exploding the bomb, subpoenaed Carolyn to take the stand. Looking into the evil, hate-filled eyes of the murderer of her four friends and forced to relive that fateful day, Carolyn realised that she had to choose forgiveness.

Hatred, unforgiveness and bitterness were eating her up and slowly destroying her. Choosing forgiveness and learning what that meant, set her on a path to hope, joy and freedom.

On 15th September 2008, Barack Obama wrote a moving letter to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to honour the lives of the four girls who had died on that tragic day, 45 years earlier:

‘The men who inflicted the pain on that day sought to set off a chain reaction in similar events around the South. But what man meant for evil, God used for good. The shock of horror that day, galvanized a nation. It led to an outpouring of protest from people of all colours and to the Civil Rights Act of 1965.’

‘The attack on this church made people stand up, from the streets of

Birmingham to the halls of Congress.’ [Barack Obama]

Although autobiographical, Carolyn’s story is not always consistent in its chronology, so at times was a little confusing as the timeline changes.

Scattered throughout the chapters are extracts of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches and his letter from a Birmingham Jail which gives further credibility to the historical reality of the time. A summary of the Jim Crow Laws is also included at the end.

While the World Watched will stir your heart and prick your conscience. It will move you to not be silent. The world has no excuse for just watching as evil prevails. Carolyn’s story puts a human face to injustice and its effects which cannot be ignored.

‘Compassion doesn’t require a large committee or a formal, organized approach. You and I can each become a committee of one. Hurting people surround us. True love gives without needing applause or credit.’ [Carolyn Maull McKinstry]