Carolyn Maull came from a good family. Her parents were well educated — her father, a college professor, also waited tables at the Club — and active in the community, including church. When Carolyn took part in Youth Sunday on September 15, 1963, she heard a continuously ringing telephone in the offices upstairs. When she answered, she heard two words: “Three minutes.”
Shortly afterward, she lost four close friends, and her life changed forever.
Carolyn Maull McKinstry’s memoir, While the World Watched, is a story of the long climb out of trauma and depression, back into hope. On September 5-15, the Dorothy Jemison Day Theatre will host a musical adaptation of McKinstry’s book. With a finale set for the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, it’s hard not to see the musical as a story of redemption, not only for McKinstry, but also for Birmingham itself.
“This has not been an easy show to sell,” said librettist Don Garrett. “People are saying, ‘We don’t want to open that wound again.’ … Yes, this has the bombing in it, but it’s not a play about the four little girls. This is really about after the bombing and what happened to this individual, Carolyn McKinstry.”
The aftermath of the bombing was an extended period of despair for McKinstry, punctuated by shocking interludes of violence. She suffered from being sprayed with a fire hose during demonstrations in 1963 and a house bombing in 1964, then learned of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death while attending Fisk University in 1968.
“She went through life believing that it wasn’t a matter of if she was going to get killed, but when she was going to get killed,” said Garrett, who worked extensively with McKinstry in fact-checking the project. “It was just a matter of time. This became an everyday part of her existence.”
Things began to turn around for Carolyn when she met Jerome McKinstry at college, who, according to co-producer Cameron White, “saw something in her that made him want to make her happy.” The McKinstrys married in college, and remain in a loving relationship today. After Jerome returned home from service in Vietnam, they traveled the country for his job, eventually returning to Birmingham to a rude surprise.
After settling back into Birmingham, Mrs. McKinstry was subpoenaed, and forced to testify on behalf of Bobby Frank Cherry, one of the Klansmen who bombed the church. In the process of trying to calm her inner turmoil, Garrett said that “what Carolyn decided was, ‘I can choose to hate, or I can choose to love. I can choose to hate, or I can choose to forgive.’ And what she realized was that all this anger she had, all the things she was feeling, were only making her a prisoner. After the trial, she let it go.”
She became an ordained minister after the 2000 trial, spreading a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, of choosing love over hate. After being forced to self-identify with trauma and pain for years, McKinstry — with a great deal of love and support from her family — remembered how to live again.
Garrett, inspired by McKinstry’s story, began the project two years ago. In the meantime, a great deal of happy circumstance — what director Judine Somerville calls “celestial choreography” — intervened to help. Part of that was the involvement of Somerville herself, a New York actress and former Rockette who was in the original Broadway production of Hairspray in 2002. Somerville’s connections brought in the support of Jerry Mitchell, who won two Tony awards for choreography, and Otis Sallid, whose credits include conceiving the hit musical Smokey Joe’s Café and choreographing the Academy Awards. Sallid in particular has served as a creative consultant of sorts, offering his time to help tighten up the musical.
While the World Watched follows the uplifting arc of McKinstry’s life, and both Garrett and co-producer White are excited about the influence it could have on Birmingham as well. “We want everybody, no matter what color they are, to look at that stage and ask, ‘Is that me? Am I still holding on to those grudges? Do I use things that happened then to validate what I do now?’” White said. “It taps into a lot of deep emotions within us.”
In addition to the immediate emotional resonance the musical has, it could also have some historical value. Garrett, who’s also a teacher, has composed a curriculum for Birmingham City Schools to go along with the play for both fine arts and history departments to teach.
For White, the educational value is personal. “When I was in school, I was able to meet foot soldiers, to hear and feel their stories. I could see how passionate they were, to feel like I was actually there. Now, it’s harder to do. One great thing about Carolyn is that she put pen to paper. We have a testament now that we can share.”
The musical ends with a recitation of the Birmingham Pledge, a simple, noble statement for ending racism on an individual basis. That’s only appropriate, since the pledge is one of the finest contributions to Birmingham’s public life in recent memory. It’s part of the Magic City’s own redemption story, a difficult — and ongoing — road out of the depths that mirrors McKinstry’s in more than a few ways.
Even if While the World Watched isn’t about four little girls, it’s still a difficult subject, one that many people will be reluctant to address. But Don Garrett, who’s lived with the story for years now, counsels patience: “If you stick with it, and you get to the end, what it’s about is redemption. It’s about love.”
The Dorothy Jemison Day Theater is located at 800 19th St. N. While the World Watched will run September 5-15, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $30. For more information, call (205) 538-5069.