WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. killed four little girls who were attending Sunday school classes. On Tuesday, the mayor of Birmingham and three Alabama lawmakers proposed honoring the victims of the infamous hate crime with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell described the event as transformative in a country then in the midst of the fight for equality. He said the terrible day was a catalyst for his own political journey as an African-American who is one of the longest serving public officials in his city. “I recognize I would not be standing here were it not for the events of 1963,” Bell said.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., the first African-American congresswoman from Alabama, and Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., plan to co-sponsor legislation authorizing the award. Fellow lawmakers aware of the effort to honor the four girls have given the Alabama congressional delegation “nothing but encouragement,” Bell said.
Sewell said the weight of the tragedy in the community and throughout the country make it important to honor the four young victims, who “represent a powerful symbol for freedom and equality.”
The Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress bestows, is given to people who have significantly affected the course of history. The decision to make the award moves through Congress like legislation; once it’s passed by both the House and the Senate, it needs to be signed by the president. Previous honorees include astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Walt Disney and Mother Teresa.
Although it’s been a half-century since the bombing of the church in Birmingham – then an unofficial meeting place for civil rights leaders — the event’s impact remains. The tragedy and its aftermath forced Americans to examine the effects of inequality and move toward protecting human rights, Bell said.
“We embrace the fact that it really was the progress made in our state that helped us move forward as a country,” Bell said. “Now it’s time for [the world] to take a second look at Birmingham and the Deep South and look at the progress we’ve made.”
That progress included the eventual murder conviction of one of the members of a Ku Klux Klan splinter group responsible for the crime. Robert Chambliss, who placed the 122 dynamite sticks under the church steps that caused the blast, initially received only a $100 fine and six months in jail for illegal possession of dynamite during his trial in October 1963.
It wasn’t until 1977, when the newly elected Alabama attorney general renewed the state’s case against Chambliss, that he was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Chambliss died in prison in 1985. In 2000, the FBI found links to three other group members also responsible for the crime.
The collaboration of Alabama’s citizens was necessary to enact change in the state’s civil rights policies, Bell said. “Sometimes we see that change only came about because black people stood up, but in reality, it was a cross-section of our community that stood up,” he said. “[The tragedy and its aftermath] demonstrated that in order to overcome a systemic negativity in your community, you have to have everybody working.”
The powerful civil rights legacy of the bombing lives on today, and continuing to advance equality requires that federal lawmakers take a page from the lessons of Birmingham, Bell said.
“We’re not faced with dogs or hoses today,” said Bell, referring to the Birmingham police brutality of the 1960s, “but there are educational… and economic issues we must deal with, and we deal with it by bringing everyone to the table and having an open, frank discussion.”