A bill to posthumously grant a Congressional Gold Medal to four young girls killed in the 1963 bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., passed unanimously in the House on Wednesday, despite unexpected resistance from some of the victims' family members who call it political showboating.
Reps. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., announced in January their intention to seek the medal, 50 years after a hate-fuelled dynamite explosion carried out by members of the Ku Klux Klan killed Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley - all African-American girls 14 and under. Following passage in the House, which was met by standing ovation in the chamber, the proposal will move to the Senate for consideration.
But Sarah Collins Rudolph and Fate Morris, siblings of Collins and Wesley, respectively, argued an anniversary-inspired ceremony wouldn't make up for the longstanding unresolved issues, both emotional and physical, caused by the bombing and its aftermath. Last week, they said they planned to turn down the honor.
"To me, what good would it do now? A medal for who? That's just a piece of metal that would sit and collect dust," Morris told AL.com. "It certainly doesn't ease my mind. It might do the politicians that are behind it some good, but it doesn't do anything for me."
Rudolph was in the girls' restroom with her sister and the other victims at the time of the blast, which took one of her eyes and significantly weakened the other. She said financial restitution for her injuries and her sister's death would be a more appropriate form of acknowledgment.
"All of a sudden they want to jump and give us a Congressional Medal when our justice hasn't been fulfilled yet," she said. "I can't go to the store and pay for my doctor's bills with a Congressional Gold Medal. I don't care how high it is; it still won't do anything for me.
"...I'm letting the world know, my sister didn't die for freedom," Rudolph continued. "My sister died because they put a bomb in that church and they murdered her."
Robertson's older sister Dianne Braddock, though, suggested Rudolph's grievance is a disconnect from an honor that could not only inspire people to learn from the past but also bring to light ongoing injustice in the world.
"I wish the best to Sarah and her family and understand what she is going through and I pray for her," Braddock said of Rudolph. "But I really am focused on helping to do whatever I can to get Congress to award this honor.
"...It is a very high honor for the four families," Braddock continued. "My hope, my wish and my prayer is that the Congress will vote for this medal to be awarded."
McNair's sister Lisa McNair, who was born one year after the bombing, said her family is "very excited about" being considered for the medal, which would be "an excellent way of commemorating the girls." It would be "much deeper" than a mere symbol, but "represents our great country acknowledging our family's sacrifice."
Mixed feelings about the award are understandable, Sewell said last week in a statement, recognizing "that this medal can in no way replace the lives lost nor the injuries suffered as a result of the horrific bombing."
But, the congresswoman went on, "I hope this medal serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of the many sacrifices made and the great achievements obtained so that this nation can live up to its ideals of equality and justice for all. It is my sincere hope that their family members would receive this highest civilian honor in the humble spirit in which it was intended."
It would be "a fitting commemoration of the legacy of these four young girls and of a landmark event in the civil rights movement that led to permanent change for the better in our society," Bachus said of the medal.
"From the vantage point of 50 years later," he continued, "we can see how the belief of the civil rights movement in nonviolent change helped our nation to avoid the animosities and calamities that have destroyed the fabric of other societies and countries."