Today, President Obama signed legislation to award the Congressional gold medal to the four little girls who were killed in their home church on September 15, 1963. The Robertson and McNair families have been supportive of the legislation since it was proposed but members of the Wesley and Collins families have not. The latter families believe that the medal inadequately compensates them for their loss. To support her case, Sarah Collins Rudolph, Addie Mae Collins’s sister and the fifth girl in the ladies lounge with the four girls but who survived the blast, lost an eye and suffered other ailments; as a result, she continues to have medical bills that need to be covered. To that end, Rudolph contends that the medal does not address the material conditions that directly stem from the racist terrorism of the past.
When I was reading bloggers’ comments concerning the posthumously awarded medal, one of them, Collin Walker, asserted that awarding the medal to the girls devalues it. Quoting requirements for receiving the medal, Walker writes, “[f]or those who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.” Walker contends that awarding the Congressional medal to the four girls is inappropriate in light of this description because he believes that the girls’ achievement is their death. As he writes in one of his posted comments, “certainly victims shouldn’t get a ton of medals just because they died.” He asks, “[w]ho were the real leaders of the Civil Rights Movement? Those people are the ones who deserve medals.” Not realizing that the death he dismisses as the product of racist, white American resistance to civil rights gains helps to explain why awarding this medal to the four girls posthumously is most appropriate. As Martin Luther King, Jr. offers in his eulogy for the girls, they were “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” Thus, seeing the girls outside of the lens of activism leads to Walker’s claim that their death alone should not qualify them for the congressional medal. For King, and for Birmingham native Angela Y. Davis, the girls were political activists. In scholar Joy James’s reading of Davis’s response to the bombing, the girls figure as “young activists, who at the time of their death were preparing to speak about civil rights at the church’s annual Youth Day program.” Even before their death, these girls were engaged with the greatest issue of their day. Carole Robertson was also a member of the organization Friendship and Action that emerged in response to the 1954 Brown decision. Black and white parents and teachers created the group to facilitate peaceful relations between the children who would soon be schoolmates.
Walker also overlooks the limitations in the narrow way that he envisions leadership. He can’t seem to imagine decentralized leadership as he calls for the awarding of the Congressional gold medal to “the real leaders” of the Movement. Well, “the real leaders” were the domestics who walked in Montgomery for 381 days between 1955 and ’56, the children who marched and went to jail and, in fact, died in Birmingham in 1963, as well as the garbage men who proclaimed their manhood in Memphis in 1968. Their sacrifices led to desegregation, equal hiring practices, voting rights, and other civil rights achievements. As the historian David Garrow asserts:
what the carefully-scrutinized historical record shows is that the actual human catalysts of the movement, the people who really gave direction to the movement’s organizing work, the individuals whose records reflect the greatest substantive accomplishments, were not administrators or spokespersons, and were not those whom most scholarship on the movement identifies as the ‘leaders.’ Instead, in any list, long or short, of the activists who had the greatest personal impact upon the course of the southern movement, the vast majority of names will be ones that are unfamiliar to most readers. (In “Commentary,” Charles Eagles, ed., The Civil rights Movement in America, 57)
Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley deserve more than the Congressional medal, but we don’t always get what we deserve. Given that the Congressional gold medal is the highest honor the Congress can bestow, it’s the best that they have to give, then it is only fitting that this superlative go to those four girls.