WASHINGTON -- On this year’s 50th anniversary of a deadly church bombing that helped spur passage of landmark civil rights legislation, the House voted Wednesday to posthumously award the Congressional Gold Medal to four black girls killed in the explosion at a Birmingham, Ala., church.
Once the Senate and President Obama give their expected approval, the nation’s highest civilian honor would be awarded to Denise McNair, 11, and Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, all 14.
They were killed by Ku Klux Klan members who set off dynamite in the Sept. 15, 1963, attack at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
“While we recognize that this medal can in no way replace the lives lost nor the injuries suffered as a result of the horrific bombing, I hope this medal serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of the many sacrifices made and the great achievements obtained so that this nation can live up to its ideals of equality and justice for all,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), the bill’s chief sponsor, told colleagues.
During the bill’s consideration, black-and-white pictures of the girls were displayed on the House floor as sisters of Denise and Carole looked on from the House visitors’ gallery and lawmakers quoted from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy for the girls. The measure passed, 420-0.
“We’re doing the right thing today,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the civil rights movement. “They must be looked upon as those who gave their blood to help redeem the soul of America.”
Although the FBI identified suspects in the bombing, it closed the case at the direction of then Director J. Edgar Hoover, who contended that an all-white Alabama jury would never convict the men. But in 1971, Alabama’s then-Atty. Gen. William Baxley reopened the case, leading to the 1977 murder conviction of Robert E. Chambliss, who died in prison in 1985.
After the FBI reopened its case in 1993, Thomas E. Blanton Jr. was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001. Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted a year later and died in prison in 2004. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1984 without being charged.
The legislation calls for a gold medal to be given to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for public display. It also authorizes the U.S. Mint to strike bronze duplicates of the medal for sale.
Among the civil rights figures who have been awarded Congressional Gold Medals are King and his widow, Coretta Scott King; Dorothy Height, who led the National Council of Negro Women for four decades; Rosa Parks, and the Little Rock Nine, who integrated a Little Rock, Ark., high school.