Nearly 50 years ago, white supremacists planted a bomb in a Birmingham, Ala., church that killed four young girls preparing to worship, an act of terror that shocked the nation and propelled Congress to pass that historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Lawmakers now want to honor those victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow.
Birmingham Reps. Terri Sewell, a Democrat, and Spencer Bachus, a Republican, announced the bipartisan effort Tuesday to award the medal to the four slain children: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 when they were killed, and Denise McNair, who was 11.
Sewell said the bombing was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
"I wouldn't be here, my mayor wouldn't be here, were it not for the struggle and sacrifice of those freedom fighters," Sewell said during an event at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
She was joined by Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, who says he knew Denise McNair well. His brother was her classmate and their families were friends.
At that time, "everybody in Birmingham — they had some kind of connection or relationship," to the victims, he said.
The four girls were among a group of 26 children entering a church basement on Sept. 15, 1963, when dynamite equipped with a timer detonated. Twenty-two others were injured when the massive explosion blew a hole through a wall in the church, shattering most of its windows.
The grisly images from Birmingham drew national attention and deepened tumult in Birmingham, a city already rife with racial tension. In the aftermath, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a eulogy for the "martyred children."
The bombing proved to be a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Within a year, Congress passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and, a year later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
But it took more than a decade before any of the bombing's perpetrators were successfully brought to justice.
In 1977, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, asking the FBI for help. That led to the murder conviction of Robert Chambliss, a known Ku Klux Klan member. Eventually, two others — Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry — were convicted for roles in the bombing, Blanton in 2001 and Cherry in 2002. A third suspect, Herman Cash, was identified by federal investigators but had already died when the FBI announced its case.
The push for a Congressional Gold Medal, which will be led by Sewell and Bachus in the House and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in the Senate, is part of a yearlong effort to commemorate Birmingham's role in the civil rights movement.
Bachus, who couldn't attend Tuesday's event, said recognition from Congress is the right way to honor the four girls whose deaths "led to a permanent change in our society."
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