Reflections on the 1963 Birmingham bombing tragedy

They came from around the nation to honor the “four little girls.”

Hundreds stood at the Capitol on Tuesday as a bipartisan group of lawmakers awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian honor, to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. The four girls died Sept. 15, 1963, in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

It is often regarded as one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights movement. Here are reflections from several attendees.

Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D), a native of Selma and the first African American woman elected to Congress from Alabama.

“On that day, we not only lost the lives of four little girls, but we must not forget that two young boys, Johnnie Robinson, 16, and Virgil Ware, 13, . . . were also killed in Birmingham within hours of the church bombing. We note that the movement that transpired from those tragic events liberated not only a people, but a nation — a nation gripped with hatred and apathy.”

Dianne Braddock, sister of Carole Robertson, and a Prince George’s County school principal.

“My family carried a heavy burden for years. It got better each year. It is the type of pain that can never go away. I miss having my sister. Even though she was years younger, as adults, I believe we would have had a different kind of relationships in terms of being close. We were close, but we would [be] closer in a different [way] as adults.”

Phil Pannel, a D.C. activist and an organizer of a service for the girls at the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Southwest Washington.

“I was 12 years old when the bombing took place. I was in Newport News, Va., which was really segregated. I remember the bombing and thinking that it could have been me. After all, we had the Ku Klux Klan in Newport News. The bombing brought it home to young black people as to how vulnerable we were and not even [a] church was safe. It shook me to the core.”

Sarah Collins Rudolph, often referred to as the “fifth victim” of the bombing, is the sister of Addie Mae Collins.

“At first, I was angry. I was very angry when I was younger. Later along in my life, I knew that I had to forgive these people because God forgave me of my sins. Holding hate on the inside, it only keeps you sick and angry, and so I just had to forgive those men.”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.

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