On September 16th, 1963, four black girls were killed in a targeted bombing in Birmingham, Alabama at the 16th Street Baptist Church as they got ready for choir: Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson.
We must never forget them. And why they were murdered.
This weekend, I was honored to join Rep. John Lewis and others on a civil rights pilgrimage in Alabama. Standing in the 16th Street Baptist Church, and kneeling before the memorial marking the location where the bomb exploded, I was overwhelmed with emotion.
16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL
When I volunteered to serve in the Army National Guard and deployed along with my brothers and sisters in arms — we made a choice to put our lives on the line to defend our country, our freedom, and our people. Addie, Carol, Cynthia and Carole never made that choice. Yet they were casualties in a battle for the soul of our nation.
We later crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, from Selma to Montgomery, led by my colleague Rep. John Lewis, as he and others who walked those very steps on Bloody Sunday in 1965 shared their stories. As they marched peacefully and courageously for the right to vote, they were met with tear gas, beaten, and bloodied. They did not fight back — they held their heads high, and continued on, keeping their eye on the prize.
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL
Throughout the weekend we visited places where slaves were held and traded, a memorial commemorating those murdered by lynching, and prayed together in churches that served as the heart of the civil rights movement.
Since the founding of our country — through treaties made and broken with indigenous communities, through slavery and abolition, through strikes and labor organizing, through Civil Rights and Equal Rights — we have sought to answer a single question: will we rise up, calling on our better angels, to fulfill a promise for freedom, justice, equality and opportunity for all? Or will we sink into our worst instincts, and allow ourselves, our communities and our nation to be ruled by hatred, greed, self-interest, bigotry and fear?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and those like Rep. John Lewis who joined him in the fight for Civil Rights chose to put themselves on the front lines of that battle. Inspired by Gandhi’s movement of nonviolent resistance, Dr. King moved mountains simply by standing still. In the face of hatred, he loved. In the face of fear, he inspired courage. In the face of violence, he endured and pressed on.
He spoke out forcefully against our involvement in Vietnam, calling out a military industrial complex that poured billions of dollars into killing people overseas while neglecting to take care of the needs of the American people.
Today, we face a world where everyone is on the front lines. Every child, every mother, every doctor, every teacher — all of us are brought to the front lines of the new Cold War and the threat of nuclear catastrophe.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
When we have faith the size of a mustard seed in the promise of America, in those better angels that live in all of our hearts, and in the power of our voices when we stand united — we can move mountains. We can invest in our communities, in our people, in our children and in our future.
We can rise up and build a future that puts people before profits, that recognizes the dignity and rights of every human being, that bends the arc of the moral universe away from war and injustice and towards peace and justice for all.
With warmest aloha,