Sarah Collins Rudolph still vividly remembers standing in the basement bathroom of the 16th Street Baptist Church 50 years ago, preening and prepping for the service with her sister and three other girls.
The girls Sarah, 12, her sister Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, also 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. had just left Mrs. Ella C. Demands Sunday school class. The lesson for the day was The Love That Forgives.
Denise had just asked Addie Mae to tie the sash on her dress. Then came the explosion, Sarah recounted on Tuesday, the day the U.S. Congress gave its highest civilian award in honor of the four girls.
Its not hard to visualize those carefree young girls in their Sunday finery, getting picture perfect for Sunday service. It is much harder to imagine an America where Americas own terrorists roamed freely often with the blessing and participation of lawmen, and where the murders of young black girls at church had the power to outrage but not the power to stop such carnage. Nine months later, civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman would be killed while trying to register blacks to vote in Philadelphia, Miss.
President John F. Kennedy, who had unveiled plans for a comprehensive civil rights law in June of 1963, declaring that this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free, would be assassinated in Dallas just two months after the young girls were killed in November of 1963.
The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., documents a litany of others who died from such terrorism following the Birmingham bombing: at least two dozen more before Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Most of the names would not be recognized, such as Jimmie Lee Jackson or Jonathan Daniels. Jackson, was a 27-year-old black church deacon killed by state troopers as he and others marched peacefully in Marion, Ala. Daniels was a white seminary student and a Virginia Military Institute graduate who came to Alabama to help register voters. He was arrested and fatally shot by a deputy sheriff after his release.
As in so many civil rights murders, it would take decades for the killers to pay the price for the deaths in Birmingham. Robert Chambliss was the first to be convicted of murder in 1977. He died in prison in 1985. The FBI reopened the case in 1993 to pursue other suspects. Thomas E. Blanton Jr. was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001 and is still serving time. Bobby Frank Cherry was convicted a year later and died in prison in 2004. A fourth suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1984 without being charged.
The steadfastness of those who continued to pursue freedom, justice and equality for all Americans in face of the continuing violence is a remarkable testament to the power of those ideas and ideals that are central to Americas founding. And their sacrifice is profoundly significant in the history of this country because of their insistence in the face of danger that the country live up to its ideals.
Thats why the memory of the murdered Birmingham girls is more than deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal. The award commemorates all those who suffered and died during the Civil Rights struggle, especially the young. And it puts that struggle into the historical context it deserves, alongside the achievements of other significant Americans figures so honored. That list ranges from George Washington, who got the first recognition, to inventor Thomas Edison to the Navajo code talkers who were critical to the U.S. military in World War II to those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Closer to home, the Rev. Joseph Delaine was among those recognized in 2004 for school desegregation efforts that began in South Carolina, and the black Montford Point (N.C.) Marines were honored in 2011.
Of course, its unlikely the four young girls who died in that Birmingham church 50 years ago were thinking about their place in history that Sept. 15th. The shrine I saw in the basement of the rebuilt church when I visited several years ago spotlighted photos of the girls smiling and laughing, their innocence shining through. The pictures revealed them as the little girls they were with hints of the women they would never become.
The gold medal, which will be kept at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, appropriately proclaims them as Pivotal in the Struggle for Equality, inscribed on its face along with the silhouettes of four girls. Though terrorists continued throughout the 60s their rampage against blacks and those who fought for equal rights, the faces of the murdered girls, and a fifth scarred for life, horrified many Americans out of complacency.
It was tragically late in coming as Rudolph aptly noted this week: Its an awful, awful shame that it took that much violence for some people to finally wake up to the violence that was happening in their own country.
Yet many did awake. The move to put legal protections in place gained momentum, and by the next year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would pass Congress, and a year later in 1965 the Voting Rights Act would pass.
Still, the fight to secure and protect equal rights, fairness and justice for all Americans a fight dogged by violence and setbacks would have to continue.
It continues today.
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