It was a low point in a painful year that also included the assassination of President John Kennedy and the murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers.
Now, 50 years after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963, the four little girls who died in the blast are seen as martyrs whose deaths changed history.
Addie Mae Collins, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were in a basement restroom, preparing to enter a church assembly, when the bomb went off. The blast came from dynamite placed under the steps of the church by members of a Ku Klux Klan group. The girls' bodies were found in the rubble. Addie Mae's sister, Sarah Collins Rudolph, lost an eye.
The blast cleanly blew out a depiction of Jesus' face from a stained-glass window, according to a National Park Service account.
In life, Cynthia Wesley excelled in math. Addie Mae Collins had been a budding artist. Denise McNair, a friend of Condoleezza Rice, who would become secretary of State, raised money for charity by staging plays and poetry readings. Carole Robertson earned straight A's.
On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner awarded a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to the four girls. It will be kept at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, who introduced the legislation that led to the award, presented medals to relatives of the girls at a ceremony at the church Friday.
"I question where I would be today without the influence of the four little girls, but more importantly, I question where America would be," Sewell said. "The premature and senseless deaths of these girls awakened the slumbering conscience of America and galvanized the civil rights movement."
Klan member Robert Chambliss was identified by a witness as having placed the bomb. He initially received a six-month jail sentence for possession of dynamite without a permit. Years later, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley discovered evidence that the FBI had withheld and won a conviction of Chambliss in 1977. The sentence was life in prison; he died in 1985. Bobby Cherry, convicted in 2002, died in prison in 2004. Thomas Blanton, convicted in 2001, is in prison in Springfield, Ala. Suspect Herman Cash was never charged; he died in 1994.
The bombing is considered a bellwether that woke people up to the peril of the battle for civil rights. Eight-thousand people attended the funeral for the four girls. No city officials were there. The nationwide reaction to the incident helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
From awards to simple words, officials and friends say the children gave their lives to help move society forward.
The church, designed by Alabama's only black architect in the late 1800s, has been host to such notables as actor and activist Paul Robeson and educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. It has been observing events of reflection on the bombing, including a symposium with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a worship service led by Julius Scruggs, president of the National Baptist Convention. A sculpture honoring the girls was unveiled in Birmingham.
On Friday, the Hallmark Channel will show The Watsons Go to Birmingham, a fictional story about a family visiting Birmingham and how it copes with the aftermath of the bombing. Writer and producer Tonya Lewis Lee spent time in Birmingham and at the 16th Street Baptist Church as she prepared for the film, which was 10 years in the making.
Protesting could be violent and dangerous work in the city of notorious police commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, who used fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators, yet children were often at the center of Birmingham's protest movement as they took part in the Children's Crusade, organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
"I think there's something really special and strong and resilient about people who come from Birmingham," said Lee, whose husband, Spike Lee, directed 4 Little Girls, a 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary about the bombing. "That city really pushed America forward, and so I hope people understand that the Children's Crusade and other events really were amazing. And I hope young people come away with that if they see something they don't like in their community, they can use their voices to make a difference."
Katharine Rhodes Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, said forgiveness is the lesson society must take from the memory of the blast.
"The day Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair were killed, the Sunday school Bible lesson came from Matthew: 'For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,' " Henderson said. "As Dr. King knew, when we turn our cheek away from retaliation and revenge, we turn our spirits to spreading the seeds of understanding, acceptance and love."
Carolyn McKinstry, who was a friend of the four girls and was at the church the morning of the bombing, went on to lead tours of the church and talk about that day. As she guides tourists toward the back, where the blast happened, they see a stained glass window depicting a black Christ with outstretched arms beneath a rainbow. The window was a gift from the children of Wales, who donated money toward creation of the window.
On McKinstry's website is a message:
"Yes, we all remember the dark and difficult days of 1963, not just in Birmingham but in many places across the nation," she writes, saying that Birmingham wept and prayed after the four girls died.
"During their memorial service, Dr. Martin L. King told us that unmerited suffering was redemptive. The death of these four young girls might well serve as a redemptive force for our nation and the world.' "