House approves medal for victims of 1963 church bombing
WASHINGTON — Four Alabama girls killed in a 1963 terrorist bombing at their church would posthumously receive the Congressional Gold Medal under legislation House lawmakers approved unanimously Wednesday.
The medal is the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow.
The Senate also is expected to approve the legislation honoring the four girls, whose deaths became a defining moment of the civil rights movement. Once the proposal becomes law, a medal ceremony is planned for later this year in the U.S. Capitol, according to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were killed by Ku Klux Klansmen who planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, a prominent black church in downtown Birmingham, Ala.
A large crater left by a bomb that exploded near a basement room of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., is shown in this Sept. 15, 1963, photo.(Photo: AP)
The murders shocked the country and prompted Congress to enact civil rights legislation. Three of the bombers were eventually convicted.
Sisters of two of the bombing victims watched from the House gallery Wednesday as lawmakers discussed the medal legislation. Afterward, the sisters posed for pictures on the steps of the Capitol and had lunch with Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., the lead sponsor of the legislation.
"I just kept thinking about my momma," one of the sisters, Lisa McNair of Birmingham said Wednesday. She said her mother's health had prevented her from making the trip to Washington.
The other sister, Dianne Braddock of Maryland, said, "I was moved by the support from all of the representatives that came." Braddock's younger sister was Carole Robertson.
McNair said the recognition from both sides of the aisle was striking.
"I loved that part. We're all one America, and everybody needs to understand that," she said.
A steady stream of Republicans and Democrats took to the House floor to repeat the names of the four girls, quote from Martin Luther King Jr.'s eulogy of them, and praise the bipartisan cooperation on the bill that is usually missing in Washington.
The Congressional Gold Medal would allow the country "to finally recognize the redemptive force the death of these four girls had in bringing light to a dark nation," said Sewell.
Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., who led GOP support for the bill, spoke near a huge poster-board picturing the four girls before their deaths.
"Looking at those faces now, they speak as strongly to me on the House floor today as they did in newspapers and for television viewers at the time," Bachus said. "There is a special place in history and in our hearts for all those killed and injured in Birmingham."
The open display of teamwork between Sewell, a young black Democrat from Selma, and Bachus, a veteran white Republican from Birmingham, was noted by many as a sign of progress in Alabama.
"This is the right thing to do at the right time for the right reasons," said Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile.
The medal legislation isn't without controversy, however. Two surviving family members have said they will refuse to accept the medal and instead want financial compensation, according to the Associated Press.
"Obviously, the invitation was to all the family members and we hope they will participate," Sewell said.
The Congressional Gold Medal 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, and was most recently awarded in 2011 to those who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The legislation to honor the Birmingham bombing victims coincides with the city's year-long commemoration of the events of 1963.
The actual gold medal minted for the occasion will be displayed across the street from the church at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Lawrence Pijeaux, president of the institute, was with Braddock and McNair in the House gallery for the debate.
"This, in my opinion, will help with some of the healing that needs to take place," Pijeaux said on the steps of the Capitol.
Sewell said the official medal ceremony probably will take place in early September before the anniversary of the bombing on Sept. 15.
Bachus and Sewell said it has taken 50 years to fully appreciate what the girls' murders meant to the history of the country and the world, and the value of non-violent protest to affect social change.
"It has stood the test of time," Bachus said.