As Democrats continue to remember the pivotal events of 1963 that forever changed the nation, we honor Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair – the four young girls who senselessly lost their lives on Sunday, September 15, 1963 when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
This week, at the request of Democrat Terri Sewell of Alabama, a Congressional Gold Medal was presented to the families of these girls, on behalf of President Obama. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and others marked the occasion with a special ceremony in the United States Capitol. Below are their remarks from the inspiring event.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi
“Benita Washington – what a perfect, perfect song – hope, ‘when hope was gone, just press on.’ And always find it sitting right there between faith and charity, it’s usual place. I hope that is a comfort to the family and that the time has eased your pain, and it is some comfort to you that it has not dulled the memory of your babies, of your baby girls.
“September 15th, 1963. It was a Sunday like any other in Birmingham, Alabama. Families went to church. Congregations prayed. And at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, four little baby girls – they look like baby girls to me, they were the age of my grandchildren – went to Sunday school. They were dressed in their Sunday best, prepared to lead in a service, excitingly talking about their first days of school. Little did anyone know that morning that these four little girls would lose their lives simply because of who they were and what they looked like, where were standing and where they worshipped. Little did anyone know that, in a moment of unspeakable tragedy, they would become tragic icons of a movement, symbols of a struggle for equality.
"Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair – her parents with us – their names remain seared in our hearts, certainly in yours, we know that, 50 years later. They left their families, their community, and their country far too early. Yet, as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King declared at a memorial service just days after the bombing, he said: ‘Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream.’ Just a few weeks after the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, he was evoking the realization of the dream. Sadly, no. Today, that same message endures. Their legacies, as the Gold Medal states, remain ‘pivotal in the struggle for equality.’ Their memories still inspire our fight to establish justice, to form a more perfect union, to realize the dream – the dreams of four little girls; the dream of a nation that loves and values all of America’s children.
“Several years ago, I had the privilege of traveling with Reverend Lewis – oh, Reverend, I call him Reverend because he’s like a preacher to us, our colleague who we’re honored to serve with, John Lewis. Spencer Bachus with us as well. Steny Hoyer, he’s gone on many of these trips and many more to come, I’m sure. And we visited the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It was so heartbreaking to just be there in this place that looked so normal. That such an extraordinary thing had happened to these little girls. It was a highly emotional experience that I don’t think any of us will ever forget. For anyone that visits that sacred ground, it is also a call to action.
“That experience and other travels to civil rights monuments impressed upon me and others who were there that every American should visit these sites. Anyone who travels the country to visit the patriotic sites of America should go. They are as important to our history as Concord and Lexington, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and yes, the United States Capitol. Shaped our history, shaped our future.
“Earlier this year, I was telling Dr. Pijeaux, that I had the privilege to travel to another one of those sites, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, which records the names of martyrs of the movement. He told me we had to come back, all of us, and go to visit him at the – now what is it, I want to say the exact right name – he is the President and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we all have to go there too on our tour of patriotic places. Many of the names tell the story of the lives sacrificed crossing bridges, registering voters, taking Freedom Rides, marching for equality – stories of struggle, yes, Frederick Douglass, the struggles and the patriotism, but also of the sacrifice. Among the names of those who were emblazoned, in this case Montgomery, were the four little girls – their lives taken in the simple act of going to church.
“They were four students; four daughters of Birmingham; four innocent victims to the forces of hatred and prejudice, racism and injustice. Their memories must always be a blessing to all of us; their loss must remain a sober reminder of our tasks today: to ensure that equality is a birthright never denied; to defend the right of all Americans, regardless of race, to lead their lives without fear, with the blessings of liberty and justice for all.
“Now, mention has been made that Rosa Parks is looking over our shoulder right here. She seems to have always been looking over our shoulder. I remember in March and the Speaker brought us together then – thank you again, Mr. Speaker, for bringing us together when we dedicated this statute. Many of us had been, earlier in the morning, on the steps of the Supreme Court because that was the day the court was hearing the arguments, the oral arguments, on the Voting Rights Act. We came over here after that, we came over here and dedicated the statute, hoped and prayed. The court made a different decision; Rosa Parks is looking over our shoulders to see what we’re going to do about it. And we won’t disappoint you, Rosa Parks.
“So, half-a-century later, from the tragedy of losing the little girls, we only hope that the senseless and premature deaths of these four little girls still ignite the fires of progress and fan the flames of freedom. We only hope that we can have the strength and wisdom to live up to their legacies as we award them, tearfully, the highest honor that Congress can bestow: the Congressional Gold Medal. I don’t remember us ever giving this medal to anyone so young, even adding all of their ages together, so young. And usually when we have a ceremony of this kind, it’s about celebration and acknowledgements. This one is especially sad. But on the positive side, the youth of these children, as I say this medal usually is an honor bestowed, but these children, with their youth, their sacrifice, they invigorate this medal, they bring luster to this medal. It will never be the same. Thank you to our colleague for making all of this possible for us today. Thank you, my colleague.”
Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell (AL-07)
“Today, the American people, through their Congressional representatives, bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal upon Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. As a direct beneficiary of their sacrifice, I was honored that my first piece of legislation honored the “Four Little Girls” with the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow upon any individual.
“I would be remiss not to thank my colleagues from the Alabama congressional delegation who joined me as original co-sponsors of the Bill. We came together in our deep love and appreciation of Alabama’s special role in the civil rights movement. I specifically appreciate the tremendous efforts of Congressman Spencer Bachus and Senator Richard in getting the support we needed in both Chambers of Congress.
“Although we will never be able to replace the lives lost or the injuries suffered, this Gold medal will serve as a compelling reminder that the price of freedom is not free. Today’s ceremony reminded us that in recommitting ourselves to the cause of justice and equality we will be fulfilling the tremendous legacy left by the four girls. I am so proud to have spent this special day with my Congressional colleagues, the families of the “Four Little Girls”, and Birmingham’s faith and community leaders as we bestowed this honor posthumously upon Addie Mae, Carole, Cynthia, and Denise. It was a truly remarkable event.”
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
“I was honored to be asked by one of my colleagues, Senator Shelby, to be one of the lead sponsors for this Congressional Medal of Honor for these four girls. And I was so pleased that unanimously we approved this Congressional Gold Medal. Too late in coming. Sad that it was ever needed. But you know what? When we think about these children of Birmingham, they deserve this Gold Medal. And so do all the children of Birmingham. What an amazing group of people – the children of Birmingham.
“The children of Birmingham made history, and they changed history. In September 1963, change was in the air. I remember it well. There had been a dynamic March on Washington just a few weeks before. America had sung, ‘We Shall Overcome.’ And a young preacher said he had a dream. And when he said he had a dream, we all had that dream. And the dream shall never die. And I was a young social worker just starting my first year in graduate school in a field called community organizing, just like Barack Obama. I might have not become president, but I got the degree.
“What were we ready to do? We wanted to end injustice. We wanted to end poverty. We wanted to end segregation. Because we knew that in the United States of America there was nothing to crow about in a country that had Jim Crow.
“President Jack Kennedy was responding. Change was on the way. We were on the move. The march could not be stopped. It was not only a march on Washington, it was a march on history. And as we were all out at our worship services that morning on September 15, the news flashed across the airwaves. Four young girls had died in Birmingham. And they had died being blown up in their own church. Bombed.
“Addie May Collins – 14. Denise McNair – 11. Carole Robertson – 14. Her sister Dianne lives in Maryland. Cynthia Wesley – 14. A classmate of my good friend, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I’ve spoken to Dianne and on Saturday I asked Dr. Hrabowski to tell me about that day. On that Sunday, Dianne was at Clark College. She was already on her way to becoming the distinguished educator that she is today. Dr. Hrabowski told the story that he was at 6th Street Baptist Church, the church a few blocks away from 16th, its sister church.
“When they heard that a bomb had gone off at 16th Street Baptist Church, everyone was terrified. The pastor was terrified. They thought that maybe 6th Street Baptist Church was the next to happen. The pastor said, ‘Go home, go home.’ But people didn’t go home. They went to 16th Street. They ran to 16th Street because it was family. It was kin. They were all there. And then out of that, America was horrified. Horrified.
“And Dr. Hrabowski said a few days later, when there was a funeral at Sixth Street Baptist Church and Dr. King came to give the eulogy, he looked around his own church and he couldn’t believe it. There were the coffins and classmates – Cynthia Wesley was his classmate and dear friend. But he saw something new. Was it police officers? Oh yes, they were around. But what was the new thing? He saw white people in his church.
“Well, friends, you know what? That day white people were in the same pews, and America realized we were in the same boat, and we all had to be together.
“Those girls in Birmingham changed history, but the children of Birmingham were not new to change. On May 2, 1963, they had their own march. Dr. King had called them forth. Their parents were scared, but those children, in a controversial decision, put themselves on the line in a civil rights march where the children of Birmingham marched side by side to try to bring about change. No more segregation. No more second hand books. No more second hand clothes. No more second hand citizenship. Bull Connor turned the fire hoses on them. And America saw it and was horrified.
“The children of Birmingham changed history and made history. And we know their names. Some of them are before us here today. The names of these four young ladies that we honor here today. But there’s also another name. A child of Birmingham and Alabama by the name of Condoleezza Rice. She was there. The Secretary of State who tried to bring peace to the world. Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, my own Marylander, who himself has been noted as one of the top 100 most influential educators in the world. Wow. These are the children of Birmingham.
“Today these four little girls would be 64 years old. They would have lived their lives, raised their families, made their own ways and made their own contributions. Maybe one would have been a cabinet member. Maybe one would have found a cure for cancer. Maybe one, too, would have been a college president. They all probably would have voted for Barack Obama, the first African American President.
“Today we give a well-deserved Congressional Gold Medal to those who were there and bore witness. The dreams of our four little girls should not be defied. No child in America should be redlined or sidelined or defined by their race, gender, religion or creed.
“So today as we honor them, I want to conclude by saying this. I’ve been inspired by the great song ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ And as I prepared my remarks today, I think of the second paragraph:
“Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chasing rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with the steady beat
Hath not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We’ve come over a way
That with tears have been watered
We’ve come treading our path
Through the blood of the slaughtered
Out of the gloomy past
Today, now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
“Four bright stars for 10,000 angels that I know welcomed them into paradise.
“God bless all of you. And God bless America.”