Family members of the four young black girls who were killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., gathered at our Nation’s Capital on Sept. 10, where they were presented with a Congressional Gold Medal in the girls’ honor. The ceremony came at the 50th anniversary of the bombing, a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement, and hopefully it touched the “hearts” of all members of Congress.
The medal was presented in a ceremony held in the U.S. Capitol in memory of 11-year-old Denise McNair and 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. An honored guest at the presentation was Sarah Collins Rudolph, who was seriously injured in the bomb blast, and is the sister of Addie Mae Collins. The bombing and deaths of the four young girls sparked national outrage. It put my state of Alabama in the national spotlight for all of the wrong reasons. It was a sad day for Alabama and one that will go down in history as a turning point in the battle for racial equality in the U.S. The bombing was one of the catalysts that contributed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It took the senseless deaths of four innocent children killed at their church to wake up America. The Kennedy Administration came to realize that no longer could they remain on the sidelines in the battle.
The resolution to honor the girls was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on April 25 in a bipartisan gesture by Reps. Terri Sewell and Spencer Bachus. Sen. Richard Shelby co-sponsored the Senate resolution. The measure passed both houses unanimously.
In 1963, nobody was arrested for the bombing. It was not until 1972 that then-Attorney General Bill Baxley was able to access FBI files on the bombing. Bill went to work, located a suspect, Robert Chambliss, and Chambliss was convicted in 1977. He died in prison. But it was not until 20 years later that the investigation was reopened by then-FBI special agent in charge Rob Langford. While trying to improve the FBI’s race relations in Alabama, Langford got feedback from Birmingham ministers who told him “the FBI never did anything with the church bombing.” Langford located two suspects still living, Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton, and got busy in an effort to right wrongs. The new investigation turned up sufficient evidence to convict both men. Cherry died in prison in 2002 while Blanton remains incarcerated. A fourth man, Herman Cash, was identified as the fourth man involved in the bombing, but he had already died.
Speaking at the ceremony, Rep. Sewell said, “Today, 50 years later, we remain silent no more. The American people through its representatives will bestow the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow … God is good.” Congressional leaders in attendance at the medal presentation were House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. House speaker John Boehner presided at the event.
The members of the House and Senate attending the ceremony – Republicans and Democrats alike – surely left the event with a different perspective on their responsibilities as public officials. Hopefully, they reflected on our country’s failure to deal with racial injustice through the years. It was also a time for them to assess where we are today in the U.S. on race relations, and to resolve to work for vast improvements that are badly needed.
Sources: NPR, al.com, and Last Chance for Justice
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