BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Relatives of four black girls killed when Ku Klux Klan members bombed an Alabama church are split over how to mark the crime 50 years later, with some favoring the Congressional Gold Medal to honor the victims and others seeking financial compensation.
Sisters of two victims said last week they favor a proposed Congressional Gold Medal honoring the girls and don’t want money for the decades of suffering endured by their families, differing with relatives of two other girls.
Dianne Braddock vividly recalls the day the powerful blast killed her 14-year-old sister, Carole Robertson, and she said a national honor would help her heal far more than any amount of money.
“I think the congressional medal brings the country together and makes a statement about where we are as a nation,” said Braddock, of Laurel, Md.
Lisa McNair, the younger sister of 11-year-old Denise McNair, said she and her parents favor the medal but aren’t interested in restitution, reparations or any other form of compensation.
“That’s not our issue,” said McNair, who was born a year after her sister died on Sept. 15, 1963.
Robertson and McNair died along with Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Morris, also known as Cynthia Wesley, when a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klansmen went off outside Sixteenth Street Baptist Church before worship on a Sunday morning. Three KKK members were convicted years later. Two are dead, and one is still in prison.
The bombing drew national attention to racially segregated Birmingham, where authorities earlier that year used fire hoses and police dogs to turn back black demonstrators marching for equal rights.
The blast critically injured Addie Mae’s sister Sarah, who lost an eye but recovered and later married. Sarah Collins Rudolph, speaking in an interview with The Associated Press this week, said she is now seeking millions in financial compensation and would not accept the medal.
“I can’t spend a medal,” she said.
Fate Morris said he also wants compensation and isn’t interested in accepting a medal for his sister Cynthia.
The medal, proposed in January by two members of Alabama’s congressional delegation, is an attempt to quiet the girls’ families without ever compensating as has been the case with other victims’ families who receive restitution or other payments, he said.
Braddock said she declined to get involved in the drive for compensation after speaking with Rudolph and Stephanie Engle, an activist who is helping the families seeking money.
“I want the emphasis to be on this medal,” she said. “I do not belittle Sarah and I wish her well. Our family is just not interested in a legal request or compensation.”
It’s unclear what kind of compensation might be available to the victims’ families because a state restitution fund was created years after the blast and can’t be used for crimes committed before its inception. A law professor said Congress could approve money to help victims, but no such move is underway.
Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell said the medal is an important honor for the four girls. The legislation has 290 co-sponsors, meaning it can be placed on the legislative calendar for a vote.
“It is my sincere hope that their family members would receive this highest civilian honor in the humble spirit in which it was intended,” Sewell said in a statement.
The medal is the highest honor Congress can bestow on a civilian. Past recipients include civil rights figure Rosa Parks and Pope John Paul II.