Alabama Seeks Congressional Medal to Honor Girls Killed In '63 Church Bombing

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It is part of a year-long commemoration of the role of Birmingham’s freedom fighters in the Civil Rights Movement.

[National News]

On January 20, while President Barack Obama was in prayer following his inauguration a delegation from Alabama announced they would seek a Congressional Gold Medal, posthumously, in honor of the four girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing, one of the most horrific attacks of the Civil Right struggle.

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, U.S. Representatives Terri Sewell and Spencer Bachus stood next to Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, Sr. in a sign of bi-partisan political unity.

On September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor awarded by Congress. It has been used to recognize world leaders, military heroes, scientists, actors, artists, institutions and events. 

The March on Washington took place in August of 1963, at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the now famous "I Have a Dream" speech. However, racial tensions culminated in an early morning bombing of the Birmingham church. The bodies of four girls removed from the dust and rubble shocked the nation.  The 16th Street Baptist Church was the site of African-American civil rights activism in 1963.

Reputed Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted of the crime in 1997.  Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were convicted for their role in the bombing in 2001 and 2002, respectively. A third suspect, Herman Cash, died before he could be brought to justice.

The proposed Congressional Medal legislation to honor the girls will be introduced by the full seven members of the Alabama delegation, on January 23. It is part of a year-long commemoration of the role of Birmingham’s freedom fighters in the Civil Rights Movement. 

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Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and a journalist covering the U.S. Supreme Court. Twitter: @gbrownemarshall

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