In life, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley were young girls with typical interests, such as landscape drawings and the school band.
In death, they inspired a nation and helped galvanize Congress to pass a landmark civil rights bill.
Fifty years after their lives were cut short by a dynamite blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the girls were honored Tuesday with the Congressional gold medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow.
Congressional leaders from both parties and both chambers paid tribute to the girls in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, with members of all four families looking on.
“These lives were far too short,” House Speaker John Boehner said. “And it is when we realize life is short that we focus on what matters and on who matters. It is why we retreat from the noise to celebrate four young women whose stories should be told and re-told.”
Among those in the crowd was Sarah Collins Rudolph, 12 at the time, the only girl in the church’s ladies’ dressing room to survive the Sept. 15, 1963 bombing. She lost her 14-year-old sister, Addie Mae.
Rudolph is 62 and still lives in Birmingham, where she works as a housekeeper.
The 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham’s first black church, was a frequent meeting place for civil rights activists. The last thing Rudolph saw before glass and debris exploded in her face was her sister tying the sash of 11-year-old Denise’s dress. After that, she screamed for her sister and called out for Jesus to help them.
The bodies of Addie, Denise, Carole, 14, and Cynthia, 14, were pulled from the site as onlookers watched in disbelief. Doctors told Sarah that if her right eye wasn’t removed she would lose her left eye, as well. It would take years before the city recovered from that bombing and other high-profile racial incidents that left a legacy of hurt and anger. It would take decades before three members of the Ku Klux Klan were found guilty of the murders that transformed the civil rights movement.
“It’s really beginning to set in what a pivotal event this was in American history,” Doug Jones, the federal prosecutor who finally secured two of the convictions, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It truly made so much difference in so many lives, so it’s just an amazing experience to be here.”
Jones is now the attorney for Chris McNair, the 87-year-old father of Denise. McNair had been serving a five-year federal prison sentence for public corruption stemming from his time as a county commissioner, but was recently released early because of his age and poor health. Chris McNair sat in the front row Tuesday with his wife, Maxine.
“It’s a blessing,” Denise’s sister, Kimberly McNair Brock, told the AJC. “And we’re just so grateful that he could be here and witness this.”
The hour-and-a-half ceremony featured testimonials from Congressional leaders and members of the Alabama delegation, who pushed through the bill to honor the four girls this year. Some tried to link the terrors of 1963 to the trials of today.
“With the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, we know that progress is always under attack and that political gains are elusive,” said Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, referring to the court’s June decision throwing out the formula the federal government used to pre-screen voting law changes in places with a history of racial discrimination.
“Old battles become new again, and the struggle continues. We still have much work to do.”
Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Alabama, pointed out civil rights leader and Atlanta Democratic Rep. John Lewis in talking about the legacy of the civil rights movement’s nonviolent struggle.
“What we’re seeing in Syria, what (wife) Linda and I saw in Belfast when a bomb went off, we are not experiencing that today because of the commitment to peaceful settling of our grievances, peaceful resistance,” Bachus said.
But the focus remained primarily on four brief lives and the monumental impact they had.
“This medal usually is an honor bestowed” on living people, said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. “But these children, with their youths, their sacrifice, they invigorate this medal. They bring luster to this medal. It will never be the same.”
The celebrations aren’t done.
Wednesday in Birmingham, more than 5,000 volunteers are expected to take part in a day of community service and a concert in Kelly Ingram Park, the historic place where black protesters were sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs.
On Saturday, a bronze statue of the four girls will be placed at the park’s entrance, directly across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church. On Sunday, there will be three services at 16th Street Baptist.
Also on Sunday, Birmingham native and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will speak at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
Coming Sunday in Living & Arts: We interview Denise McNair’s mother, Maxine, and her sisters, born after her death in the 1963 church bombing.