Relatives, bombing prosecutor and Birmingham mayor attending White House medal ceremony for 'Four Little Girls"
A Congressional bill bestowing the highest civilian honor to the victims of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing will get President Obama's signature in a White House ceremony Friday.
The 1963 church bombing killed 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley who will be posthumously honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones and Mayor William Bell will attend the ceremony, along with Dianne Braddock, sister of Carole Robertson; and Lisa and Maxine McNair, sister and mother of Denise McNair.
Bell noted the significance of the medal and the timing of the award, 50 years after the bombing and other seminal moments of the civil right era.
National outrage over the church bombing and deaths of the girls who were attending Sunday school contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"It is a great honor for the family of these young ladies, and it goes a long way in recognizing the impact that tragedy had on the civil rights movement," Bell said. "Out of that tragedy came a commitment from all sections of our city to change. Everybody came together to make the changes that were necessary for us to stand here on this day and time."
Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills and Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, sponsored the effort in the House. Both members took to the House floor to speak in favor of the honor.
Jones was invited as a guest of Bachus. As U.S. Attorney, Jones was the lead prosecutor in the 2001 and 2002 convictions of two men for the church bombing.
Those convictions came nearly 40 years after the 1963 bombing and after the 1977conviction of another bomber.
"It's hard to describe how special it is being there in the Oval Office with the first African American president, who really is in that office in part because of the deaths of those four girls," Jones said in an interviewwith The Birmingham News/AL.com. "It's indescribable what it means to me."
He called the Gold Medal and other commemoration activities in Birmingham this year important for several reasons.
Events in Birmingham 50 years ago had world-wide significance, changing policy in this county, and inspiring human rights efforts elsewhere, he explained.
"The lessons of Birmingham from 1963 show what can be done to change people's hearts, people's minds and give everyone access to civil rights," Jones said. "That was one of the pivotal points in the county's history for basic civil rights."
Jones called the civil rights era a revolution that should be celebrated just as the nation continues to celebrate the American Revolution.
Bachus said Friday's bill signing memorializes the legacy of the girls, whose deaths led to permanent societal change.
Sewell today issued a statement that underscored Bachus' sentiment.
"And though we will never be able to replace the lives lost or the injuries suffered, this medal will serve as a compelling reminder of the sacrifices so many freedom fighters made to help us achieve equality and social change," she said.
A Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the U.S. Capitol will be held later this year.