WASHINGTON — On this year’s 50th anniversary of a 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that became a key moment in the civil rights movement, a group of lawmakers is seeking to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the four black schoolgirls who died in the explosion.
A bill backed by Alabama’s congressional delegation would award the nation’s highest civilian honor posthumously to Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, all 14 — all four killed by Ku Klux Klan members who planted dynamite and set it off Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
“This tragedy galvanized the civil rights movement and sparked a surge of momentum that helped secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., said a in letter to colleagues seeking their support.
Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said in a statement, “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.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy at the girls’ funeral.
While the FBI identified suspects in the bombing, it closed the case at the direction of former director J. Edgar Hoover, who contended that an all-white Alabama jury would never convict the men.
But in 1971, Alabama’s then-Attorney General William Baxley reopened the case, leading to the 1977 murder conviction of Robert E. Chambliss, who died in prison in 1985. After the FBI reopened the case in 1993, Thomas E. Blanton Jr. was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001, and Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted a year later. Cherry died in prison in 2004. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1984 without being charged.
Among the civil rights leaders who have been awarded Congressional Gold Medals are King and his widow, Coretta Scott King; Dorothy Height, who led the National Council of Negro Women for four decades; Rosa Parks; and the Little Rock Nine, who integrated a Little Rock, Ark., high school.