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Op-Ed: 'Remembering a tragic milestone in the fight for Freedom in America'

By Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell (AL-07)

Every gain in the battle for racial equality has come at a high cost, paid by those who sacrificed everything for a vision and a dream bigger than themselves.

And in Birmingham, Alabama, 60 years ago today, four little girls paid the ultimate price.

On Sept. 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan detonated 19 sticks of dynamite under the 16th Street Baptist Church, taking the lives of the precious little Black girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Morris Wesley.

As a child, I remember hearing the tragic story of the four little girls, preparing to sing in the choir when their lives and futures were brutally ripped away.

Along with the girls who lost their lives, there was a fifth little girl, Sarah Collins Rudolph, the younger sister of Addie Mae Collins, who was injured but ultimately lived.

Following the bombing, thousands of African Americans took to the streets to demand justice. In response, then Alabama Governor George Wallace orchestrated a violent clash between protesters and police to break up the demonstrations. Within hours of the bombing, two Black boys, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, were killed in the fallout.

And yet, despite the violently racist nature of the attack, it took more than 34 years before the perpetrators faced justice.

The killing of the four little girls focused America's eyes on Birmingham, bringing into sharp clarity the injustices that sparked the Civil Rights Movement. Their premature and senseless deaths awakened the slumbering conscience of America and inspired generations to demand change.

And although we will never replace the lives lost or remedy the injuries suffered, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 proved that their sacrifice was not in vain.

I know that I get to walk the halls of Congress as Alabama's first Black congresswoman because the four little girls couldn't. As a direct beneficiary of their legacy, I was honored that the very first bill I passed in Congress bestowed upon them the Congressional Gold Medal to ensure that this nation never forgets the cost of freedom.

Indeed, every gain in the battle for Civil Rights has come at a high cost, paid by those who sacrificed everything for a vision and a dream bigger than themselves.

And every day of inaction, every day we are not paying that legacy forward, we empower those who want to take us back.

Today, as extremists seek to whitewash our history, rewrite our textbooks, and roll back our progress, it has never been more critical to ensure that the legacy of the four little girls lives on in America's story.

Because it was their memory that carried John Lewis and those brave foot soldiers, unarmed and unafraid, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in my hometown of Selma, Alabama.

It was their sacrifice that burned in the mind of President Lyndon Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And it is their story that will inspire the next generation of freedom fighters to protect and advance the hard-fought rights and freedoms won by our forefathers and foremothers.

Today, we as Americans are called on to honor the lives of the four little girls and to remember them by name: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Morris Wesley.

We must never forget the price they paid. After all, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D) is in her seventh term representing Alabama's 7th Congressional District which includes the historic cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, and her hometown of Selma, Alabama. She is one of the first women elected to Congress from Alabama in her own right and the first Black woman to ever serve in the Alabama congressional delegation.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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