Nearly five decades after they perished in one of the most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement, the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing will receive the highest honor Congress gives to civilians.
On Friday, with the girls families looking on, President Obama signed legislation posthumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The girls were killed on a Sunday in September 1963, when a bomb exploded as they were getting ready for morning services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
As the president acknowledged in his remarks, the tragic bombing was a significant milestone in the civil rights movement.
The bombing came only a few weeks after the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. White supremacists planned the bombing of the church, which served as the meeting place for civil rights organizers, with the intention of scaring activists and slowing the movement’s progress. But the bombing had the opposite effect; the killing of four innocent girls inspired many to support the civil rights movement.
Four days after the bombing, President John Kennedy brought civil rights leaders including Dr. King to the White House to have one of the many meetings that ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Acts.
As he honored the girls on Friday, the president was joined by Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who sponsored the bill, and former U. S. Attorney Douglas Jones, who prosecuted two of the three former Ku Klux Klansmen who were convicted of the bombing decades after the attack.