The Congressional Gold Medal that honors the four young girls who were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, AL/Getty Images
WASHINGTON - Four girls whose deaths in an Alabama church bombing 50 years ago played a major role in moving the nation closer to racial equality were honored Tuesday with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Family members of the girls, who were killed when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, were at the U.S. Capitol for a bipartisan ceremony commemorating their sacrifice.
Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, died 50 years ago this Sunday when dynamite detonated just before services at the prominent black church. The murders shocked the country and prompted Congress to enact civil rights legislation.
HISTORY WEBSITE: Civil Rights in America: Connections to a Movement
"These lives were far too short," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "And it is when we realize life is short that we focus on what matters and on who matters. It is why we retreat from the noise to celebrate four young women whose story should be told and re-told."
In a packed Statuary Hall in the Capitol rotunda, Democratic and Republican members of Congress talked about how the girls' deaths advanced the cause of civil rights.
Lisa McNair, Denise McNair's sister, described the ceremony as "bittersweet."
"But it was victorious that they were honored and will forever be remembered," she said of her sister and the other three bombing victims.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, who championed the congressional resolution granting the medal, noted that Tuesday's ceremony took place in the shadow of a new statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
"Fifty years later, we finally honor their life and legacy," Sewell, the first black female member of Congress from Alabama, said of the bombing victims.
The gold medal minted for the occasion will be on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Members of two of the girls' families were initially critical of the medal, calling it an inadequate response to their suffering. But all four families were represented at Tuesday's event.
That included Denise McNair's parents, Chris and Maxine McNair. Chris McNair was released from federal prison in Minnesota on Aug. 29 after serving part of a five-year sentence for public corruption related to his time as Jefferson County Commissioner.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose sister-in-law helped integrate the University of Alabama, recently changed Justice Department policy to allow some ill and elderly federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes to be released early. McNair was one of the first to benefit.
Dianne Braddock of Maryland, Carole Robertson's sister, also was in the audience.
"As I speak to different groups of students, I tell them the lesson in this is that children made a change. It is in within their power to make a change," Braddock said.
Two of bombers died in prison. A third is serving a life sentence.
For an entire generation of blacks in the South, the bombing provided horrifying proof that hate-fueled violence could strike anytime, anywhere. Freeman Hrabowski, a ninth-grade classmate of Cynthia Wesley and now president of the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, said Tuesday's ceremony should be used as an educational tool.
"The point of this recognition is that we believe in... the importance of children, that people even then were appalled that little girls could be murdered in church," said Hrabowski, who grew up in Birmingham. "What could be more horrible than that?"
The Congressional Gold Medal has been used to recognize world leaders, military heroes, scientists, actors, artists, institutions and events. The medal was first awarded in 1776 to George Washington, and was most recently awarded in 2011 to those who died in the 2001 terrorist attacks.