This week Congress bestowed a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to four little girls who lost their lives on September 16, 1964. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing is an event in our nation’s history which should be remembered by us all. The racially motivated attack and deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair fifty years ago helped awaken America to the evils of racism and further galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
On September 18, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up in Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church. He delivered a eulogy for the four little girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing three days before.
To those gathered at the funeral service for three of the girls, he captured what their death meant to our nation:
They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.
Indeed, the loss of those four young, innocent lives altered the future of our country for the better. That is why this week our elected Members of Congress came together to honor these four, who paid the ultimate sacrifice to make our country a place where anyone can achieve their American Dream.
At the ceremony on Wednesday, Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “This moment is for us to pray for the families of the departed … to ask God to renew our strength and replenish our grace. So that we may press on and serve without growing weary, and walk without growing faint towards that more perfect union of our founders’ dreams.
“That is why we return to these steps. That is why we will always return. That is why we will never forget.”
Majority Leader Cantor said, “The bombs that September morning may have shaken the walls of the church, but they could never shake the will of the people who often gathered under that steeple seeking the divine right of equality…
“The Congressional Gold Medal, one of America’s highest civilian awards, is given to those who have had a great impact on American history and culture. Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise are most deserving of such an honor.”
And Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama said, "I was in Alabama 50 years ago, 60 miles from Birmingham, in Tuscaloosa when we heard the news. We knew then that it was a shameful act, a tragic day, we couldn't believe it happened but it did, but it awakened the consciousness of not only Alabama but the whole nation."
Each member truly captured sentiments of the struggle for equal rights for all Americans. As James Weldon Johnson wrote in “Lift Every Voice and Sing”,
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Those who gathered on Wednesday to honor the Birmingham four captured a reverence for the past, an honest perspective on where we stand today and hope for the future. They reminded us how far we have come while being honest about how much work we still have to do. So may we tackle the challenges ahead while keeping Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair in our minds.
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