Washington, D.C. – Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi delivered remarks today at a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, the four girls killed 50 years ago in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15th, 1963. Below are the Leader’s remarks:
“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.”