WASHINGTON, DC – House & Senate leaders presented a Congressional Gold Medal today in honor of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, victims of the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. At today’s ceremony – held in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol – House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) made the following remarks welcoming participants and prior to the presentation of the medal, as prepared for delivery:
“Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and welcome to the United States Capitol.
“This year, Congress is celebrating the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement – a time that proves Frederick Douglass was right when he said, ‘if there is no struggle, then there is no progress.’ Among the beacons between his time and ours, four little lights stand out.
“It was three weeks to the day after the March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. back at the pulpit. This time in Birmingham, Alabama. But he was not there to sermonize; he was there to eulogize – to try and make sense of the Sunday morning murder of young Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.
“‘Life is hard as crucible steel,’ Dr. King said, but ‘the innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force.’ What may have been just comfort turned out to be sheer prophecy. Birmingham had to go through hell, but found its way back and pushed itself forward, and the whole country pushed forward too.
“This is one of the true American stories.
“Here in the people’s House, two representatives from Alabama – a white man and an African-American woman – have joined together to see that these favorite daughters will always shine in the hearts and history of our nation. Addie Mae, who went door to door after school selling the aprons and potholders her mother made. Denise, who put on skits in the garage to raise money for muscular dystrophy. Carole, who always made sure she got her chores done so she could go to dance class on Saturdays. And Cynthia, who did well in math and the band, who enjoyed hosting parties in the backyard.
“Today, they become recipients of our highest civilian honor: the Congressional Gold Medal. Since the days of the Revolution, the Medal has served as an expression of appreciation for distinguished individuals and achievements. It has been awarded to – among others – Jackie Robinson, the Little Rock Nine, and Rosa Parks, who will now share this bond with Addie Mae, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia.
“Carole’s older sister, Dianne, spoke for all of us when she said, ‘after 50 years, it is well due.’
“So I’m glad you are all here, especially our guests from Birmingham, including Dr. Lawrence Pijeaux, head of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Reverend Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
“Finally, we are truly humbled to be joined by members of the families of our honorees. This medal is but a small token of the nation’s gratitude for the courage you have shown.”
PRESENTATION OF THE MEDAL
“Let me thank my colleagues for their words, especially my friend Eric Cantor, who was instrumental in making this Medal a reality. As we prepare for the presentation, I will leave you with this thought.
“This award doesn’t just immortalize people and great events. It serves a much more fundamental purpose, and that is to honor the very ideas and blessings that this nation was founded on.
“One of those ideas – the first one really – is that life is precious. Put another way, life is short. These lives were far too short. And it is when we realize life is short that we focus on what matters and on who matters. It is why we retreat from the noise to celebrate four young women whose story should be told and re-told.
“Some would call this ‘closure.’ Today they’ll say it’s ‘ceremony.’ As the father of two girls, I would just call it ‘love.’ Love saw us through this – and it will see us through whatever trials we face.
“Pour out that thimble of wisdom Dr. King used in his eulogy from the prophet Isaiah: ‘And a little child shall lead them.’ Once again, our children have led us to this simplest of notions. They bring us together. They give us hope when ours runs out. No, we didn’t need a medal to reaffirm this order of things, but we can always use a solid gold reminder.
“And so: the United States Mint, authorized by an Act of Congress, has struck in the name of the American people a Gold Medal to commemorate the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.”
“May we serve their memories with love and honor.”