A half century after one of the worst racially-motivated incidents of the civil rights era, Alabama’s congressional delegation introduced legislation Wednesday to bestow the Congressional Gold Medal to the four black girls who were killed in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
If approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate, Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14, would posthumously receive the nation’s highest civilian award.
They would join the ranks of the Tuskegee Airmen, World War II Native American Code Talkers, Apollo 11 moon astronaut Neil Armstrong, World War II Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King, civil rights leader Dorothy Height, former British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Tony Blair, and former South African President Nelson Mandela as recipients.
“It is important to reflect, especially for each new generation, how an act of evil that killed four innocent young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church jarred the conscience of the American people and led to permanent change in our society,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus, a Republican and co-sponsor of the bill. “The presentation of a Congressional Gold Medal would be a fitting commemoration of the significance of their lives and, from the vantage point we have 50 years later, of the welcome progress on racial equality that has occurred in Birmingham and our nation as a whole.”
Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, another co-sponsor and the first black woman from Alabama to be elected to Congress, said the Gold Medal for the girls would speak to all who died during the turbulent fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
“The four little girls are emblematic of so many who have lost their lives for the cause of freedom: Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, as well as Virgil Ware and James Johnny Robinson who were killed within hours of the church bombing,” Sewell said. “Over the course of this year 2013, as we commemorate Birmingham’s role in history, we must make every effort to remember and recognize not just these four little girls but all those who have suffered and sacrificed so that Birmingham, Alabama and this nation could uphold its ideals of equality and justice for all,” said Rep. Sewell.
The Sept. 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is considered a devastating but pivotal moment in the civil rights movement as it spurred national and international anger and contributed to Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The explosion killed the four girls, injured 22 other people, and severely damaged the church. King travelled to Birmingham and delivered a powerful eulogy for the children. Three Ku Klux Klansmen were eventually convicted of the church bombing.
“These children-unoffending, innocent, and beautiful – were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” King said. “And yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.”
He added that the deceased girls have “something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who had fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans.”
The Gold Medal award legislation, co-sponsored by all seven members of Alabama’s congressional delegation, coincides with a year-long 50th anniversary reflection by Birmingham of its role in the civil rights struggle.
“We recognize that we have a great burden on our shoulders to make sure that we take the past 50 years and look forward to the next 50 years and see who can we inspire (and) how can we get young people in touch with their past so they can have a stronger future,” Birmingham Mayor William Bell told reporters at Washington’s National Press Club on Tuesday.
Introducing the bill Wednesday is just the first step for Sewell, Bachus and the rest of Alabama’s congressional delegation to secure the award for the girls. The legislation must be co-sponsored by at least two-thirds – 290 – members of the House. At least 67 senators in the 100-member Senate must co-sponsor the bill before that body can consider it. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama is working to make that happen.
“On the 50th anniversary of this tragedy, I believe this is an appropriate way to honor the memories of the victims,” Shelby told USA Today.