— WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly 50 years ago, white supremacists planted a bomb in a Birmingham, Ala., church that killed four young girls preparing to worship, an act of terror that shocked the nation and propelled Congress to pass that historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Lawmakers now want to honor those victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow.
Birmingham Reps. Terri Sewell, a Democrat, and Spencer Bachus, a Republican, announced the bipartisan effort Tuesday to award the metal to the four slain children: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all 14 when they were killed, and Denise McNair, who was 11.
Sewell said the bombing was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
"I wouldn't be here, my mayor wouldn't be here, were it not for the struggle and sacrifice of those freedom fighters," Sewell said during an event at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
She was joined by Birmingham Mayor William A. Bell, who says he knew Denise McNair well. His brother was her classmate and their families were friends.
At that time, "everybody in Birmingham — they had some kind of connection or relationship," to the victims, he said.
The four girls were among a group of 26 children entering a church basement on Sept. 15, 1963, when dynamite equipped with a timer detonated. Twenty-two others were injured when the massive explosion blew a hole through a wall in the church, shattering most of its windows.
The grisly images from Birmingham drew national attention and deepened tumult in Birmingham, a city already rife with racial tension. In the aftermath, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a eulogy for the "martyred children."
The bombing proved to be a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Within a year, Congress passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and, a year later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.