Nearly 50 years after their deaths shocked a nation and became a vital catalyst in the civil rights movement, the “four little girls” killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., will receive the Congressional Gold Medal. The House voted yesterday to award the girls the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, all perished on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, after a bomb was placed under the steps of the church by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
After the girls died, Martin Luther King Jr. told Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who virulently opposed desegregation, that “the blood of four little children … is on your hands.”
The widespread outrage over the attack — and that one of the perpetrators, Robert Chambliss, three weeks later was found not guilty of murder by a Birmingham jury —eventually compelled Congress to pass civil rights legislation.
Chambliss in 1977 was tried with new evidence and convicted of the murders, dying in prison in 1985. In 2000 two other men, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, were also convicted.
Recent recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal, awarded annually by Congress, were golfing pro Arnold Palmer and global economist Mohammed Yunus. Others who have received the award include King and his wife, Coretta Scott King; Rosa Parks; the “Little Rock Nine;” baseball great Jackie Robinson; the Tuskegee Airmen; Nelson Mandela; and Pope John Paul II.
The bill was authored by Reps. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) and unanimously approved by the House yesterday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who called the honor “a strong reminder of how many people fought and died in the civil rights movement so that this country could live up to its founding ideals of equality and opportunity.”“I think after 50 years, it is well due,” said Dianne Braddock, the older sister of Carole Robertson.“The whole nation will, of course, see this as a big honor,” she said. “It’s a big meaningful recognition. It’ll show that they didn’t die in vain. A lot of civil rights efforts were pushed forward based on that horrible tragedy that occurred. So they had some part to play in the progress that America made in regards to racial equality.”
Lisa McNair said she wasn’t even born when her sister Denise was killed, and her parents rarely discussed the attack as she grew older.
“As my father says, we didn’t wash our faces with her,” McNair said. “Of course, there’s always a picture of Denise in the den; it’s been there all my life. As we grew up, I asked about her. And my mother would go to the cemetery quite often when we were little, but by the time we were teenagers, we stopped visiting.”
After the bill is approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama, as expected, the ceremony could take place on Sept. 15, the 50th anniversary of their deaths.