"While The World Watched"

While The World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry

Carolyn Maull was 14 years old when a bomb exploded in a washroom of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, where she and her family were attending Sunday morning service. She had just spoken with four of her girlfriends in that washroom before heading upstairs. Her four friends were killed in the blast.

It's always good to hear the personal stories of people who lived through events that we know mainly as history. I was 11 years old in September, 1963, when this act of racial terrorism took place and I had only a slight idea what racial prejudice looked like. A few years earlier, in first grade, there had been one little black girl in my school and she was my friend. I hated the way some of the children taunted and frightened her, chasing her home after school in tears. I had no idea at the time why they were doing it. I went home with her after school one day and I've always remembered the look on her parents' faces. They looked tired, defeated. And scared. I remember wondering why they were so sad. I didn't realize then that people must be treating them as badly, and probably far worse, than my little friend was being treated. Of course this was just a tiny glimpse of what was happening on a much larger scale in the southern U.S., and when the Birmingham bombing happened, it wasn't even on my 11 year old radar.  

Learning the personal stories of people who lived through it is important; we can get the facts from history books, but to gain an understanding of what really happened and how it affected people's lives we have to hear if from them. McKinstry's story of growing up in Alabama in the 1960's is eye-opening and heart- wrenching. It's sickening what people were made to suffer simply because of the colour of their skin. It's also sickening to realize these horrors were committed not hundreds of years ago, but in our own recent past. Some of the "Jim Crow" laws are listed in the book and if you are not already familiar with them you will be shocked and disgusted.

Though I'm very glad I read this story, I didn't enjoy the writing. It was repetitive and didn't flow well. There were touches of melodrama that seemed superfluous. In this story there is more actual drama than anyone would ever want in a lifetime, so adding it as a literary technique seems like too much. I think the book would have benefited from more editing.

In spite of the weaknesses in the writing, I do recommend the book because it provides an up-close and personal look at a part of human history we must never forget. And it serves as a reminder that though some battles have been won, the fight for equality continues for many negro people, for native North Americans, for women, for the lower castes in India, and for countless others all over the world. The fight is far from over. 



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