Sewell sponsors bill to honor 4 girls killed in 1963 Birmingham church bombing with the Congressional Gold Medal
WASHINGTON — Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell is one of the lawmakers behind a bill to honor four black girls killed in a Sept. 15, 1963, Birmingham church bombing with the Congressional Gold Medal.
“These four little girls represent a powerful symbol of our quest for freedom and equality,” said the Alabama Democrat, one of the sponsors of the bill that is to be introduced today.
The bombing ranked as one of the civil rights struggle’s darkest moments. The girls — Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14 — have long had a prominent place in the civil rights movement. Honoring their memory with the medal would amount to a statement by Congress that their brief lives were internationally significant.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress and has been used to recognize world leaders, military heroes, scientists, actors, artists, institutions and events.
The medal was first awarded in 1776 to George Washington. It was most recently awarded in 2011 to each of the people who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The legislation was announced by Sewell and William Bell, the mayor of Birmingham. The awarding of the medal, if approved by Congress, would coincide with Birmingham’s year-long commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing and other pivotal civil rights incidents.
Three Ku Klux Klansmen eventually were convicted of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The incident outraged the nation and helped prompt the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“When I think of the four little girls who were killed ... it’s a responsibility on my shoulders and on the congresswoman’s shoulders to make sure we live out their dreams and live out their hopes and pass that on to the next generation,” Bell said.
Congressional Gold Medals require significant bipartisan support. Two-thirds of House and Senate members must sign on as co-sponsors before Congress even considers the proposal.
On Tuesday, Rep. Spencer Bachus and Sen. Richard Shelby, both Republicans from Alabama, announced their support. They are members of the banking committees that review such legislation.
“A Congressional Gold Medal would be a fitting and proper commemoration of the significance of their lives and, from the vantage point we have 50 years later, of the progress that has occurred in our nation as a whole,” Bachus said.
Shelby said he would sponsor the Senate version of the bill.
“On the 50th anniversary of this tragedy, I believe this is an appropriate way to honor the memories of the victims,” Shelby said.
Doug Jones, the former federal prosecutor who convicted two of the three bombers, said he supports the medal effort but wants it to include Addie Mae Collins’ sister, Sarah, who lost sight in one eye as a result of the 1963 explosion.
“Sarah needs to be included, somehow, some way,” Jones said Tuesday from Birmingham.
He said the bombing clearly motivated Congress to deal with civil rights — and motivated people in the South who until then had been silent.
“There is no question that the deaths of those four innocent children pretty much galvanized the country and the world,” Jones said. “And to a large extent, it galvanized the city of Birmingham and the state of Alabama and others in the Deep South to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
Sewell said she plans to talk with Jones about his recommendation to add Sarah Collins Rudolph’s name to the legislation.
All seven members of Alabama’s congressional delegation will sign on as original co-sponsors of the legislation, Sewell said. She and Bachus already are plotting strategy for signing up 283 other co-sponsors. Sewell said their plan involves personal appeals to members and speeches to various caucuses.
“This is really an opportunity, I believe, for us to embrace our history and — though painful — be able to put it in a context of the national and global human rights movement,” Sewell said.