On Tuesday, the Congressional Gold Medal, a rare honor that requires an act of both houses of Congress, was awarded to four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the heinous act that saw a white supremacist plant a bomb in the packed church on a Sunday morning.
The bomb, composed of dynamite and a timer, was planted beneath the front steps of the church, outside a basement room in which 26 children attended a Sunday school sermon. The four girls, Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley; 14, were killed while 22 other sustained injuries.
At a memorial service for the girls, three days after the blast, Martin Luther King Jr., said, “These children – unoffending, innocent, and beautiful – were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” Their deaths helped galvanize much of the country against segregation, and toward a trial of the suspects.
Witnesses reported seeing Robert Chambliss, an avowed white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan. Following a short trial, less than a month after the bombing, Chambliss was found guilty of possessing dynamite and received a $100 fine. He spent only six months in jail.
In 1971, Alabama Attorney General William Baxley reopened the case. Using evidence in a sealed FBI file, prosecutors charged Chambliss with murder. In 1977, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1985. In 2000, the federal government pressed charges against three other men: Herman Cash, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, all of whom, along with Chambliss, were accused of belonging to a KKK gang called Cahaba Boys. Cash had died by then, but in 2002, Blanton and Cherry were tried for their roles in the church bombing and found guilty of murder.
The Congressional Medal of Honor has been bestowed on other heroes of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. Each medal is designed and minted specifically for its recipient. Legislation to create the medal was co-sponsored Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala.