*The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted unanimously to honor the four young Alabama girls killed in a 1963 church bombing with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.
Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley; 14, were killed on Sept 15, 1963, in the attack that struck Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning. Twenty-two others were injured.
The bomb, composed of dynamite and a timer, was planted beneath the church’s front steps outside a basement room in which 26 children attended a Sunday school sermon. The blast sent a fireball into the air, blowing out a stained glass window, sending shrapnel into the air and melting metal fixtures.
At a memorial service for the girls, three days after the blast, Martin Luther King Jr., said, “These children — unoffending, innocent, and beautiful — were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”
Their deaths helped galvanize much of the country against segregation and toward a trial of the suspects. Witnesses reported seeing Robert Chambliss, an avowed white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan. Following a short trial, less than a month after the bombing, Chambliss was found guilty of possessing dynamite and received a $100 fine. He spent six months in jail. In 1971, Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the case. Using evidence in a sealed FBI file, prosecutors charged Chambliss with murder. In 1977, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1985.
The Congressional Gold Medal has been bestowed on other heroes of the civil rights movement, including Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, the Tuskegee Airmen, Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, and the Little Rock Nine. Each medal is designed and minted specifically for its recipient.
Legislation to create the medal was co-sponsored by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.