"I left her buried in a pile of bricks. That's all I could think of," he said through tears.
Stephanie Engle, an activist who is publicizing the families' push for compensation, said victims of the bombing deserve reparation just like Japanese Americans who received payments through a $1.6 billion program decades after being held in internment camps during World War II.
Birmingham's entire Jim Crow structure of racial segregation created a climate of fear and hate that resulted in the girls' deaths, she said. Engle said "medals, statues, and 'pomp-and-circumstance ceremonies' are not a substitution for justice, moral, and historical accountability."
Press aides to Sewell and Bachus did not return messages seeking comment on the status of the legislation for the medals.
The Alabama Crime Victims' Compensation Commission helps crime victims and families with expenses stemming from a crime, but Executive Director Cassie Jones said state law does not allow it to address crimes that occurred before the agency was created in 1984. She said it doesn't matter if the conviction occurred after 1984, as happened in this case. "We are not able to compensate anyone where there was a crime before it became an agency," she said.
She said the Justice Department has a program to assist crime victims, but she doesn't know how far back it can go.
Robert Sedler, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who has litigated major civil rights cases, said Congress has the power to approve compensation to victims such as Rudolph.
"These people are victims of a long and tragic history of racial discrimination in the southern states and Congress on behalf of the people can provide compensation for the victims," he said.
As for the church bombing victims and families, Sedler said their argument is strengthened by the fact that Alabama authorities were nor protecting the rights of blacks at the time. He noted that Birmingham's public safety commissioner then was the notoriously racist Bull Connor.
"Violence was encouraged," he said. "Local law enforcement officials did not enforce the law to protect minority rights... The people who blew up the church, they believed that they could do it with impunity."
The viciousness of the bombing drew national attention to Birmingham, where authorities used fire hoses and police dogs to turn back black marchers months earlier the same year. Congress passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act within a year of the bombing, which came to symbolize the depth of racial hatred in the South.
Rudolph's comments come a week after Alabama lawmakers address another major episode in civil rights history. Legislators voted to allow posthumous pardons for the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teens who were wrongly convicted of raping two white women more than 80 years ago.
Associated Press writer Phil Rawls in Montgomery contributed to this story.