May 2, 2013 at 9:05 am

Detroiter reclaims moment in civil rights history

Detroit woman claims place in history
Detroit woman claims place in history: Mamie Chalmers says she is person in iconic civil rights photo.

It's an iconic photo from the early days of the civil rights movement: An unidentified woman and two men are blasted by a fire hose in 1963 Alabama.

A Birmingham, Ala., minister has long said she is the woman in the picture, saying so on "Oprah," CNN, in books, newspaper interviews and speeches across the country.

But a Detroit woman, Mamie Chalmers, recently contacted The Detroit News to say she is the person in the photo. Three people who participated in the demonstration where the picture was taken support her contention.

Confronted by The News with this information Sunday, the minister, Carolyn McKinstry, 65, backed off her claim.

"That's a misidentification," she said during a phone call. "I don't know who's in the photo but it's not me."

Asked why she had repeatedly said otherwise, McKinstry hung up.

For Chalmers, 71, who has been challenging McKinstry's assertion for 16 years, the retraction was sweet vindication.

The 50th anniversary of the photo being taken is Friday, which means Chalmers has waited half a century for her role in history to be acknowledged.

"I've been waiting a long time, a long time," she said Tuesday, crying. "She's been lying and lying and lying."

Chalmers' daughter, Lasuria Allman, who has contacted numerous people over time in a futile attempt to correct the record, also became emotional when describing the happy end of her mom's journey.

"We tried for so many years and nobody responded," she said. "I didn't want her to die like that — with this the last thing on her mind."

The photo was taken when thousands of blacks demonstrated to end segregation in Birmingham, Ala., and were attacked with fire hoses and police dogs.

Images from the protest shocked the nation and helped win support for the civil rights movement, historians said.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the demonstrations, "Carry Me Home," Diane McWhorter called the pictures "era-defining" and comparable to the photo showing Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

Claim becomes famous

In 1999, Chalmers was watching "Oprah" when a giant reproduction of the famous photo appeared on stage.

"Hey, that's me," she said to an empty room.

But a woman on the show, McKinstry, said it was her.

Chalmers remembers the date — Nov. 22, 1999 — because she immediately wrote it down, along with the names of everyone associated with the program.

It wasn't the first time she had heard about McKinstry, who made a similar claim in 1997.

Chalmers fired off letters to McKinstry, "Oprah," Charles Moore, the Life photographer who had taken the picture, and Mike Durham, who had written a book about Moore.

"I do not know if this is an honest mistake by McKinstry," Chalmers wrote to "Oprah."

"What I do KNOW is THIS IS NOT her."

Only one person wrote back.

Six months after sending the missives, she received a letter from McKinstry.

McKinstry insisted it was her in the pictures, sending stories and photos that identified her as the person.

McKinstry included personal photos of what she looked like in 1963, seemingly trying to convince Chalmers to doubt her own experience.

"I couldn't believe it," Chalmers said.

McKinstry continued to make her claim, appearing on national talk shows and news programs.

During the appearances, McKinstry also discussed another claim to fame — that she had talked to four girls at a Birmingham church seconds before they were killed in a 1963 bomb blast.

With her prominence rising, McKinstry quit her job as a training coordinator with Bell South in 2002 and earned a master's degree at an Alabama divinity school, according to her memoir.

She runs a ministry specializing in reconciliation and forgiveness, according to her website. She travels the world, lecturing to youth, teachers and institutions.

"I had become somewhat of a poster girl I think for Birmingham," she said during one speech.

The memoir was published in 2011.

In the book, she said the identity of the person in the photo wasn't important.

"But to those of us who marched, the pictures are symbolic of all of us," she wrote. "The images are reflections of courage."

During a brief phone call Sunday, McKinstry said "it's been known for years" she isn't the woman in the photo.

Yet she continued to tell reporters the opposite, doing so as recently as a December interview by Junior Scholastic, said the magazine's editor, Rebecca Zissou.

It's not clear why McKinstry finally retracted her claim.

The message on her voicemail is a Bible verse: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Nobody listened

McKinstry and Chalmers couldn't be more different.

McKinstry is a college-educated child of teachers, a polished public speaker, who before becoming a minister, worked for Bell South for 24 years, according to her memoir.

Chalmers is a coal miner's daughter, high school dropout and homemaker who raised seven children and becomes flustered when talking.

"I'm not a great speaker," Chalmers said.

Each time McKinstry made her claim on TV shows or news broadcasts, Chalmers contacted the programs to set the record straight.

But nobody listened.

The first time she tried to right the wrong was 1997 after friends told her about McKinstry.

Chalmers wrote to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum of the city's early racial struggles. Enclosing the historic photo, she identified herself as the woman in the picture.

"I am writing to inquire if it is possible to be acknowledged in some small way," she wrote.

The institute invited her to be interviewed by Horace Huntley, a University of Alabama-Birmingham history professor who was compiling an oral history of the local civil rights movement.

When the interviews were published in a book in 2009, Chalmers wasn't included but McKinstry was. McKinstry had served on the institute's board.

Reached by a reporter this week, Huntley, now a Jefferson County (Ala.) official, said he didn't remember Chalmers' claim that she was in the photo.

"The name doesn't ring a bell," he said.

Friends confirm identity

Brenda Hong of Birmingham doesn't need a book to tell her who is in the famous photo.

She said she knew who it was the first time she saw it — Mamie Chalmers.

So did Eva Mitchell and Brenda Butler of Detroit.

All three women attended elementary school with Chalmers in Birmingham and participated in the demonstration where the photo was taken.

After growing up in Alabama, Chalmers moved to Detroit in 1973.

The three women said they could tell it was their friend by her face, body shape and close-cropped hair.

"Anybody who knew Mamie could look at the picture and tell who it was," said Mitchell, 70.

Hong, 68, said it was unconscionable someone else would claim to be in the photo.

"It's scandalous," she said. "If you made a mistake, you made a mistake, but to continue that lie is reprehensible."

Recalling that day in 1963, Chalmers said she and the two unidentified men were struck by the fire hose after dodging police dogs in a park across the street.

The hose was so powerful she thinks it eventually damaged the hearing in her right ear. She was later arrested, spending five days in jail.

It was a scary time but worth it to end segregation, she said.

"Birmingham was not a good place to live," she said.

Copies of the photo have been posted throughout her house most of her life.

They're in the living room, a hallway, her upstairs bedroom and on the refrigerator. She called them her family legacy.

For a long time, someone else claimed to be in the picture. But not anymore.

"I can sleep good," she said. "I haven't slept good in 50 years."

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For years, Mamie Chalmers had struggled to be recognized as the woman in a 1963 photo that won support for the civil rights movement. / Daniel Mears / The Detroit News