It has been nearly 50 years since four young Black girls were killed in a bombing in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. And to commemorate that horrific episode, the House of Representatives voted to award the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to 11-year-old Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, each of them 14.
It was a moment of all-too-rare bipartisan action in Congress, where the measure was cosponsored by two members of the Alabama delegation: Terri Sewell, a Democrat, and Spencer Bachus, a Republican. They had been working actively for the House to confer the honor on the four girls for much of this year.
This congressional honor has a deeper meaning in a contemporary American landscape. The House of Representative voted on the measure less than two weeks after the attacks that killed three people and injured nearly 200 more during the Boston Marathon. And it should serve as a reminder that what Americans now call terrorism is hardly a new phenomenon in our country.
Before any American had heard of Al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, terrorism had a strong foothold in the culture of this country – in the life of Black America. The Ku Klux Klan was more active in terrorism than anything the country has seen in this millennium, doing everything to impede the work of anyone who fought for racial equality.
In Birmingham alone, there were more than 50 bombings of the homes and institutions of African-American citizens in the first half of the century. In fact, the governor of Alabama at the time, George C. Wallace, told the New York Times that a strategy to halt integration in his state would be for people to see “a few first-class funerals.”
The attack at the 16th Street Baptist Church was particularly heinous. It took place on a September Sunday morning. The church had been a meeting point for figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph D. Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth in developing strategies to register African-American residents to vote in Birmingham. And their actions escalated tensions in Birmingham, particularly among white residents who bitterly resented African-American equality.
And so, early on a Sunday morning, four members of the Klan planted a box of dynamite with a time delay under the steps of the Black church. As 26 children were walking into the basement to hear a sermon called “The Love That Forgives,” the bomb exploded, blowing a hole in the church’s back wall and destroying all but one stained glass window, the one portraying Christ leading a group of young children.
And so, it is fitting for Congress to lay down Republican and Democratic partisanship and intransigence and simply honor these four girls who lost their lives in one of the historic acts of terrorism on America’s shores. And just as their deaths gave added drive to the momentum of the civil rights movement, we should be reminded that other acts of terrorism can lead the country, when people come together in tragedy, to persevere with a renewed sense of purpose.
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(Photo: Associated Press / SL)