WASHINGTON (AP) — House and Senate leaders on Tuesday awarded Congress’ highest civilian honor to four girls killed in the Alabama church bombing nearly 50 years ago that became a watershed moment in the civil rights movement.
The Congressional Gold Medal went to Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who were all 14, and Denise McNair, who was 11. The ceremony came five days before the 50th anniversary of their deaths inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
“Their names remain seared in our hearts,” said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. She was joined at the commemoration by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Republican House Speaker John Boehner and cmembers of Alabama’s congressional delegation. Along with the many lawmakers in the crowd paying tribute were director Spike Lee, and several relatives of the girls.
President Barack Obama is set to sign a bill Friday that awards the Congressional Gold Medalposthumously to the four African-American girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. The children were murdered when a bomb planted by white supremacists exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963.
The deadly blast at the church, which civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. used as a meeting place, was pivotal turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and sparked support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not only did the explosion kill the four girls- — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair – another 22 people were injured.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian award given in the United States. It is awarded to people “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.”