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August 23, 2013

Congress to honor 1963 Birmingham bombing victims

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, congressional leaders announced that they will award the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to the four African-American girls who were killed in the 1963 racially-motivated bombing of a Birmimgham, Ala., church.

The Sept. 10 ceremony inside the Capitol Building's National Statuary Hall will honor Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. They were killed when a bomb ripped through Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church just 18 days after the March on Washington.

The bombing quickly became a watershed moment in the civil rights struggle, though justice didn't come as swiftly to those who committed the attack. With a lack of evidence and witnesses unwilling to talk, charges weren't filed during the 1960s against the men who law enforcement officials suspected of carrying out the attack.

In 1977, Robert Chambliss, a retired mechanic and former Ku Klux Klan member, was convicted of first-degree murder in connection with the bombing and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1985. In 2001, Thomas Blanton was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to four life terms.  A year later, Bobby Frank Cherry was found guilty of first-degree murder and given four life terms in prison. He died behind bars in 2004. 

The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress's highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Past recipients include George Wasahington, the Wright brothers, inventor Thomas Edison, boxer Joe Louis, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, cartoonist Charles Schulz, and Pope John Paul II. 


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"Planet Washington" covers politics and government. It is written by journalists in McClatchy's Washington Bureau.

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