House honors girls killed in Birmingham church bombing with Congressional Gold Medal

April 24, 2013

This item has been updated.

Almost 50 years after their deaths, the House voted Wednesday to award the Congressional Gold Medal to 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.


Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), lead sponsor of the Congressional Gold Medal bill. (AP)

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 caused international outrage and drew the attention of civil rights leaders, who came 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, while other civil rights leaders have received the award, including 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're known by some, 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 approved a bill honoring the four girls with the medal. The measure is cosponsored by Reps. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), who began pushing for the honor earlier this year with other members of the Alabama congressional delegation.

During a congressional trip in late February to visit key landmarks in the civil rights movement, aides said Sewell and her colleagues personally lobbied House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who spoke in support of the bill on the House floor Wednesday.

The honor "is 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," Cantor said.

"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."

Braddock was a college student in New York when her sister was killed in the bombing.

"I remember it clearly," she recalled in an interview Tuesday. "I had just worked that summer before on voting rights and encouraging people in Birmingham to try to register and vote and was doing a big drive. I knew that there was a lot of tension with the activities at the church."

On that fateful day, Braddock's father called her aunt in New York. "They called her and I just fainted," she said. "It was just horrible, unbelievable."

Lisa McNair, the younger sister of Denise McNair, wasn't even born when her sister 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, and McNair, who lives in Birmingham, watched the vote Wednesday from the House Gallery. If all goes as planned, the girls could receive the Gold Medal posthumously by Sept. 15 of this year, which also happens to be a Sunday.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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