It’s been 50 years since Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair were killed in a Birmingham, Ala. church bombing. Now, the United States government is recognizing the value of their lives by granting the families of the victims Congressional Gold Medals.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress. George Washington was the first recipient of the medal in 1776. The last award was given to those killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Rep. Terri Sewell (D—Ala.) led the delegation to push Congress to grant these families the medals. Other Alabama legislators joined her cause, including Rep. Spencer Bachus and Sen. Richard Shelby. Sewell thought it appropriate to bestow the medal of the ‘four little girls’ and their families because their deaths served a greater purpose.
“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.”
The Senate passed the bill May 9 and President Obama signed it May 24.
“This bill signing recognizes the legacy of four beautiful little girls whose lives, while far too short, led to permanent change in our society and became an honored part of the civil rights movement,” said Rep. Bachus in a statement.
Obama echoed Bachus’ remarks in a statement to the Associated Press. He said the bombing was a devastating loss that “helped to trigger triumph and a more just and equal and fair America.”
The impact of the moment was not lost on the sitting commander-in-chief.
“For us to be able to be in this Oval Office with so many people who have worked hard to make this day possible, and understanding that that tragic loss, that heartbreak helped to trigger triumph and a more just and equal and fair America, that’s an incredible thing for us to be able to participate in,” Obama said.
Several members of the children’s families were present at the signing, including Lisa and Maxine McNair, the sister and mother of Denise McNair. The bestowing of the Congressional Gold Medal is considered a historic achievement, especially since the Senate and House of Representatives unanimously passed the measure.
Diane Braddock, sister of Carole Robertson, is thrilled that the Congress aligned on this issue.
“Maybe it was because of the nature of what they were voting for – showing reconciliation and recognition that a very bad wrong was done, and that the families have suffered for 50 years,” she said. “It was very rewarding that Congress was able to come together and award this Congressional Gold Medal.”
She also had praise for the President.
“I think the president – representing the whole country – really acknowledged the wrong that was done and acknowledged that if it had not been for the deaths of these four girls, some civil rights activities would probably not have happened as quickly as they did,” Braddock said.
Despite the enthusiasm of some supporters, the medal has not been well-received among all of the living relatives of the victims. Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley’s families are requesting financial compensation in lieu of the congressional honor. Sarah Collins-Rudolph and Fate Morris told the Associated Press the medal is too long overdue to have an impact.
“To me what good would it do now? A medal for who?” Morris said. “That’s just a piece of metal that would sit and collect dust.”
Rudolph lost an eye in the blast and still suffers the effects of the trauma. She thinks financial recuperation will assist her more than the Congressional Gold Medal.
“I can’t go to the store and pay for my doctor’s bills with a Congressional Gold Medal. I don’t care how high it is, it still won’t do anything for me,” she said.
Sewell addressed their complaints in a statement to an Alabama newspaper.
“While we recognize that this medal can in no way replace the lives lost nor the injuries suffered as a result of the horrific bombing, I hope this medal serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of the many sacrifices made and the great achievements obtained so that this nation can live up to its ideals of equality and justice for all. It is my sincere hope that their family members would receive this highest civilian honor in the humble spirit in which it was intended.”
A formal presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal will occur in coming months. The medal is being gifted to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for permanent display.