In an iconic photo from the civil rights movement, a young black woman and two men are blasted by a fire hose, the water pinning them violently against a Birmingham, Alabama brick wall. Taken in 1963, the era-defining photo gained national attention and helped to alert the world to the horrors that African-Americans were facing in America at the time. For decades, a woman by the name of Carolyn McKinstry claimed to be the woman in the photo. McKinstry appeared at numerous events around the country and told her story at dozens of speaking engagements. In November of 1999, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss her life and the circumstances of the notorious photograph.
Watching from her home in Detroit that afternoon was Mamie Chalmers, who recognized herself — not McKinstry — in the famous photo. In 1963, Chalmers had been in Birmingham, serving as an organizer of the foot soldiers and The Children’s Crusade, who were summoned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to protest and march against the racism and segregation plaguing the country. Chalmers wrote letters to McKinstry, Oprah Winfrey and the Life photographer who had taken the picture. Six months later, McKinstry responded and insisted that it was indeed her in the photo. For years, Chalmers attempted to set the record straight, contacting each television program on which McKinstry appeared. She got nowhere, though, until McKinstry, who runs a ministry, backed off her claim in 2013, stating to The Detroit News, “I don’t know who’s in the photo but it’s not me.” Later that year, Chalmers was recognized by the city of Birmingham and presented with a key to the city.
In an effort to correct history and ensure that her mother, who was rendered deaf in one ear from the force of the water that fateful day in 1963, receives the credit she rightfully deserves, Chalmers’ daughter, LaSuria Kandi Allman, recently published the true life story of Mamie Chalmers, Her Stolen Pride.
When did you first become aware of your mother’s role in the civil rights movement?
When I was very young, my mother always spoke of her and her family’s participation and involvement in the The Children’s Crusade and the struggles that blacks face in Birmingham. My mother’s famous Time-Life photo of being hosed and other civil rights photos hung throughout our house.
Prior to McKinstry’s appearance on Oprah, was your mother aware of this photo, and was she aware that someone else was claiming to be her?
Yes, my mother has always known of that particular photo and also the other ones. There were hundreds of photos taken of that era, and she was in the majority of them. Always in the forefront, leading the way. The photo of her being hosed became a famous Time-Life photo and appeared in magazines, books, history books, newspapers, videos, news programs and documentaries. My mother found out about Carolyn in 1997; that is when she wrote her. My mother also contacted The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and did an oral video interview with Horace Huntley at the time Carolyn sat on the Board of the Birmingham Institute.
For both you and your mother, what was the most difficult part of trying to convince news outlets that it was her, and not Carolyn McKinstry, in the 1963 photo?
It wasn’t a problem trying to convince the news that it was my mother; she had proof aside from all of the photos depicting her participation in the protests. She has her arrest record, where she spent five days in jail. She also received three tickets. In 1968, she was pardoned by the state of Alabama for her participation in the The Children’s Crusade. Plus, a lot people who participated in the protests who are still alive and know it’s my mother have came forth.
Now that McKinstry has backed off her claim, do you feel that justice has been served? If not, what further steps would you like to see taken to recognize your mother’s place in history?
No, I don’t feel justice has truly been served. Carolyn has yet to apologize to my mother for the hurt, humiliation and pain she has caused her by stealing my mother’s life, image, identity, experiences, accomplishments and, most of all, her pride. In the photos you can see it’s her; they knew it. I would like for my mother to be officially honored by President Obama for her pivotal role in The Children’s Crusade.
How has your opinion of Oprah Winfrey changed as a result of this ordeal?
My mother was Oprah’s biggest fan, never missing a show. That is how she saw the show on November 22, 1999, that aired Carolyn claiming to be in the famous photo. I’m very disappointed in Oprah that she has never answered any of our letters throughout the years. My faith in Oprah correcting this problem isn’t lost yet. There is still hope that one day she will do the right thing.
For you, what was the most challenging aspect of writing Her Stolen Pride?
Actually, writing the book wasn’t challenging, it was rewarding because I got a chance to interview some very important, intellectual and interesting people.
Politically and socially, do you feel that the United States is currently on the right track?
President Obama is doing the best he can with the cards he has been dealt.
What’s the best meal you’ve eaten recently?
Grilled salmon and wild rice.
What are your fondest childhood memories?
Growing up and listening to all the different stories my mother and my uncle Berry told us about their life living in Birmingham and The Children’s Crusade. It was fascinating yet shocking.
What life lessons did you learn from your mother?
To have faith and courage, and she gave me the strength and determination with the drive to succeed. That I too could be anyone I chose to be if I worked hard at it.