Leaders of the U.S. House and Senate held a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony today commemorating the victims of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Following are Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's remarks delivered during the ceremony, which took place in Statuary Hall, in the U.S. Capitol:
"We gather here today to do honor to the memory of four little girls: Addie Mae, Denise, Cynthia, and Carole. And we gather to recognize the outsized role these girls would play in the struggle for civil rights in this country.
"We're all familiar with their story.
"On a Sunday morning in September 1963, a group of men with monstrous designs conspired to place more than a dozen sticks of dynamite beneath the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Shortly after 10 a.m., the dynamite blew, killing the girls, injuring many others, and breaking hearts across the country.
"The force of the explosion ripped through the church -- blasting debris over pews and pulpit, even crushing cars that had been parked nearby. Injured congregants, dazed and bloodied from the explosion, wandered outside. Nearly every stained glass window in the building had been blown out -- save one: a window that showed Christ leading a group of children, but with his face missing.
"The symbolism was potent.
"After all, the tragedy of September 15th was just the latest in a wave of violent acts convulsing Birmingham at the time. And those suffering through it could have been forgiven for feeling as if God had abandoned them -- for giving up hope. And yet, as Scripture assures us, the Lord did not abandon His flock.
"Today we know that the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church was a decisive turning point in the civil rights struggle. It did not stamp out the embers of freedom; it fanned them. And as news of the tragedy spread, widespread revulsion gave way to political action. Pressure mounted and soon paved the way for passage of landmark legislation in Washington. Attitudes, too, began to change, radically. Looking back, it's amazing to see just how far we've come since the days of Bombingham and Selma. And yet, the deaths of Carole, Cynthia, Addie Mae, and Denise remain as senseless as they were tragic. And I know the denial of justice for so many years made the hurt that much worse. So I want the family members gathered here today to know that the lives of these children meant something to the history of this country. They helped change our nation. And they remind us still of the odiousness of those who seek to divide Americans by race; not just through violence, but through the kind of divisive rhetoric we all must unite to defeat.
"So today, we offer this Congressional Gold Medal to the memory of four children who set out simply to attend Sunday school, not to become martyrs for a cause. But who ascended nonetheless to the pantheon of Americans who, in death, continued their contributions to our country. For that, as a nation, we are forever indebted. And I hope this highest civilian honor we present today will serve as a permanent reminder of that enduring gratitude."