After 50 Years, Congress Honors Four Girls from Birmingham

Pictures of the four girls who died in the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15th, 1963, on display at the church where the bomb went off They were four girls who went to church one Sunday morning, 50 years ago – and never came home.

Denise McNair was just 11 years old.

Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were all 14.

They were four African-American girls, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement – the movement that brought racial equality to the United States.

They had no idea that their lives were about to come to an end on that September Sunday.

And they had no idea that their deaths would help change the lives of millions of other people.

It was September 15th, 1963.

On that morning, a white supremacist organization called the Ku Klux Klan set off a bomb at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

(White supremacists are people who think they’re better than everyone else simply because they’re white.)

Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia and Denise were all killed.

Twenty-two other people were injured.

And the nation was horrified.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis was a young civil rights activist at the time.

“(Those girls) gave their blood to help redeem the soul of America,” he said on Wednesday, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The girls’ deaths helped spur Congress to pass federal civil rights legislation in 1964 – legislation that helped outlaw racial discrimination nationwide.

On Wednesday, Lewis and his colleagues in the US House of Representatives voted 420-0 to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the four girls.

That’s the highest civilian honor given by Congress.

The U.S. Senate is expected to approve the medals as well.

And President Obama is expected to give them final approval.

Carole’s older sister and Denise’s younger sister were on hand in Washington on Wednesday to watch the House vote.

“I think after 50 years, it is well due,” said Dianne Braddock, Carole’s sister, in an interview with the Washington Post.

“I just kept thinking about my momma,” said Lisa McNair, according to USA TODAY.

Two Alabama congress members led the fight to honor the girls – Democrat Terri Sewell, who’s African-American, and Republican Spencer Bachus, who’s white.

“There is a special place in history and in our hearts for all those killed and injured in Birmingham,” Bachus said on Wednesday, according to Gannett Washington Bureau reporter Mary Orndorff Troyan.

“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 greats achievements obtained so that this nation can live up to its ideals of equality and justice for all,” Sewell said, according to Times reporter Richard Simon.

If all goes as planned, the families of Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia and Denise will be able to receive their gold medals sometime later this year – possibly on the 50th anniversary of the terrorist act that put them in our nation’s history books for evermore.

“It’s a big meaningful recognition,” said Braddock, Carole’s sister, in an interview with Washington Post reporter Ed O’Keefe.  “It’ll show that they didn’t die in vain.”