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Congressional leaders honor victims of 1963 Birmingham church bombing

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House and Senate leaders Tuesday formally awarded Congress’ highest civilian honor to the families of four girls killed in an Alabama church bombing nearly half a century ago that is now regarded as one of the most horrific acts of violence of the civil rights era.

The Congressional Gold Medal was posthumously presented in Washington on Tuesday to Addie Mae Collins, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; and Denise McNair, 11.

The ceremony was held five days ahead of the 50th anniversary of their tragic deaths inside the walls of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

In his remarks at the ceremony, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, honored the legacy of the four slain girls, who were preparing for Sunday worship when they died.

"There was no safety for those four little girls. Not even Sunday school," Reid said. "But there really was salvation. Not only for the four young ladies, but for a nation."

He added: "That outrage sparked by the deaths of these four innocents ignited the civil rights movement like nothing had up to that time."

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that on the day of the bombing virtually every stained glass window in the church was blown out — except for one bearing the image of Christ leading a group of children, with his face missing.

“The symbolism was potent,” McConnell said.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, teared up near the end of his remarks when he said: “Once again, our children have led us to this simplest of notions: They bring us together.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, addressing a statute of Rosa Parks, said: “We won’t disappoint you."

Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14; from left, are shown in these 1963 photos. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pelosi was alluding to the recent Supreme Court decision upending a key anti-discrimination provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which she had referenced earlier in her remarks.

The girls were killed when a bomb planted outside the church by white supremacists exploded. The brutal attack sent aftershocks across the nation and triggered violent clashes between police and protesters.

Today, the bombing — and the outrage and reflection it prompted — is widely credited with helping to spur passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The church, which had a predominantly African-American congregation, served as a gathering place for civil rights leaders and activists. 

Past recipients of the medal include civil rights icon Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

The honor is awarded to those "who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient's field long after the achievement," according to the Senate's website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Anonymous / ASSOCIATED PRESS