Spike Lee’s 1997 seminal documentary “Four Little Girls” recounts the tragic Birmingham, Ala. church bombing that took the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair. Their sudden, tragic deaths rank as one of the cloudiest moments in the Civil Rights Movement and a bipartisan delegate of congressmen want the United States to recognize their involuntary sacrifice.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala. is leading a legislation to bestow the Congressional Gold Medal on these children and their families in honor of their lives and legacies. Other Alabama legislators are supporting her push, including Rep. Spencer Bachus and Sen. Richard Shelby.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress; it was first given to George Washington in 1776 and was last awarded to all of the families who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Sewell thinks the four little girls are deserving of this honor because their lives were significant in drawing attention to the social injustices in the South.
“These four little girls represent a powerful symbol of our quest for freedom and equality,” she told USA Today. “This is really an opportunity, I believe, for us to embrace our history and — though painful — be able to put it in a context of the national and global human rights movement.”
Sewell and other supporters of the legislation face an uphill battle in having the Congressional Gold Medal awarded. Two-thirds of House and Senate members have to co-sponsor the legislation before Congress will consider the proposal and vote on issuing the medals.
Bachus and Shelby are leveraging their positions in the House and Senate to rally support for the bill, but culture critic Tavis Smiley worries that this won’t be enough. He writes in a Huffington Post op-ed about the struggle he faced to have Rosa Parks honored with the Congressional Gold Medal.
“You would think an effort to honor the woman regarded as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement would have been an easy task. Hardly. It was a tough fight,” he writes. “Over the radio I would do a daily roll call of every member of Congress who had not signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation to honor Mrs. Parks.”
Over time, Smiley’s insistent efforts were rewarded. He writes, “One by one, our advocacy efforts were moving us closer to getting the long overdue recognition and respect that Mrs. Parks had long ago earned and richly deserved.”
Eventually Parks was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and is now a permanent fixture in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol.
Smiley thinks the advancement of digital technologies gives legislators and citizens an advantage in this fight for the four little girls from Birmingham. He encourages black Americans to use Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites to reach our congressional leaders on this issue.
“Black radio, the blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook. However you communicate, spread the word. Time is of the essence,” he writes.
Birmingham, Ala. mayor William Bell is also imploring Congress to act to inspire the next generation of leaders and activists.
“When I think of the four little girls who were killed … it’s a responsibility on my shoulders … to make sure we live out their dreams and live out their hopes and pass that on to the next generation,” he said in a January press conference.
If the Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to Collins, Robinson, Wesley and McNair, it will align with the 50 anniversary of their deaths and a yearlong commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sums up the importance of cherishing their lives and legacies in a speech he delivered in Birmingham after their deaths.
“These children — unoffending; innocent and beautiful — were the victims of one of the most vicious, heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” he said. “Yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were on the mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well.”