Congress on Tuesday presented the nation’s highest civilian award to a representative of four girls who were killed during one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights movement, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley died in the explosion of a bomb that members of the Ku Klux Klan had planted in the church fewer than 20 days after the March on Washington and as public schools in the region worked toward integration. McNair was 11 years old, the others 14.
“Today, Addie Mae, Denise, Carole and Cynthia will finally be recognized as agents of change, who lost their lives, and it was pivotal in the struggle for equality,” said U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., who sponsored legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the four girls that ultimately gained unanimous support.
The girls’ deaths served as a catalyst for advances in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
Sewell credited the girls with inciting momentum for change that would pave the way for people such as President Barack Obama and herself, the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama.
Relatives of all four girls attended the ceremony in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, including Denise McNair’s father and mother, Chris and Maxine McNair, the only surviving parents of the four girls.
Carole Robertson’s niece, Carole Copeland, sat in the second row. Copeland’s mother was pregnant when her sister was killed.
“My mom named me for her, for Carole, and being here today is very emotional,” Copeland said. “It’s a beautiful memorial, and I’m so happy for my mom and for the other families. To see this acknowledgement and the memorial for my aunt and the other girls, it’s a wonderful thing.”
Members of the Birmingham community – Mayor William Bell, as well as members of the city council, the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – also attended the presentation.
“It’s an honor and a privilege for the girls to be recognized in this way for the tragic event that happened on that fateful Sunday 50 years ago,” the Rev. Arthur Price Jr. said. “Now, as a country, we reflect, and we know that their sacrifice was not in vain. This is one of the highest honors that could be given to them.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, led the ceremony and presented the medal to Dr. Lawrence J. Pijeaux Jr., the president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where the award will be displayed.
“Half a century later from the tragedy of these four little girls, we hope that the senseless and premature deaths of these little girls will ignite the fire for progress and fan the flames of freedom,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “And may we hope that we have the strength and wisdom to live up to their legacies as we award them, tearfully, the highest honor that Congress can bestow.”
By Sarah Sexton
McClatchy Washington Bureau