WASHINGTON — The House voted this week to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the four young girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., a seminal moment in the civil rights movement.
Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were killed on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, in a bombing that also injured 22 other churchgoers. The attack spawned international outrage and drew the attention of civil rights leaders, who went to Birmingham to expose the city’s discriminatory practices and compel Congress to pass civil rights legislation.
The Congressional Gold Medal is one of the nation’s highest civilian honors and is awarded annually by Congress. Golfing pro Arnold Palmer and global economist Mohammed Yunus are the most recent recipients, Other civil rights leaders have received the award, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, the “Little Rock Nine,” baseball great Jackie Robinson and the Tuskegee Airmen.
Over the years, the “four little girls,” as they became widely known in the cultural lore of the civil rights movement, have received fewer honors. There’s a Chicago scholarship program named for them and a memorial at Birmingham City Hall.
That changed Wednesday, when the House unanimously approved a bill honoring the four girls almost 50 years since their deaths. The bill was authored by Reps. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.. It earned the support of more than 290 colleagues, including 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.
Once the bill is approved by the House and Senate and signed by President Obama, “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 wasn’t even born when her sister Denise was killed. As she grew older, her parents rarely discussed the attack.
“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.”
Braddock, who lives in Laurel, Md. and McNair, who lives in Birmingham, watched as the House voted on the bill Wednesday. If all goes as planned, their sisters could receive the Gold Medal posthumously by Sept. 15 of this year, which also happens to be a Sunday.