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United States Attorney General Eric Holder was stricken with emotion Sunday in Birmingham, Ala., as he reflected on the murder of four young girls who died 50 years ago after a bomb detonated beneath the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, galvanizing a civil rights movement.
“Our nation lost something precious on that Sunday,” he said from the church podium to an audience that included former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Congressman and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, civil rights activists as well as the family of the slain.
Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, referred to the girls as “angels” and said their murder “marked a seminal and tragic moment” in U.S. history. He added that the malign force which killed the four girls is still present.
“The reality is that hate never leaves us,” he said, adding that hate must always be “confronted and defeated.”
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said his state is still marked by its pained history.
“Birmingham certainly still bears the scars of its turbulent past,” he said. “(But) today we choose to look beyond those ugly scars.”
Bentley then queried the crowd: “What will our nation look like 50 years forward? That’s up to us,” he said.
In commemoration of the deaths, the city of Birmingham hosted a week-long docket of events in remembrance of the tragedy that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Sunday is the culmination of the events, titled "Empowerment Week."
"It is a sad story, but there is a joy that came out of it," said Sarah Collins Rudolph, who survived the Sept. 15, 1963 blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Her 14-year-old sister, Addie Mae Collins, was among the victims of the bomb planted by a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
On Sunday, at 10:22 a.m. CT, the time of the blast, the church's bell tolled in remembrance of Collins, 11-year-old Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, both 14.
The church service, which included the exhortation to "love your enemies" — the same verses read 50 years ago, started a day of activities throughout the city, both remembering the tragedy and celebrating the civil-rights laws that resulted from it.
"What would you do if you could get your hands on that Blanton dude who bombed the church?" asked Pastor Arthur Price at the church's Sunday school class. The Christian answer, he said, is to practice "the love that forgives."
The 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender also brought an end to the Jim Crow laws that had enforced rigid segregation practices across much of the southeastern United States.
The Klansmen involved in the church bombing were convicted years later. One remains imprisoned.
Scores of songs, plays and odes have been penned since the bombing in honor of the four girls. Lauded musicians Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen have mentioned the bombing in their music. In 1997, director Spike Lee made the documentary film 4 Little Girls about the murder. The film was nominated for an academy award.
Less than a month after his "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reacted to the murders and cast blame on the complacent.
“What murdered these four young girls was the negro business and professional individual who’s more concerned about his job than he’s concerned about freedom and justice,” he said.
Celebrated as martyrs in the history of civil rights, the four bombing victims were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed on civilians, after President Barack Obama signed into law H.R. 360 in May to posthumously recognize the sacrifice of the four girls.
On Thursday, the families were given replicas of the medal, which pictures the four girls, the church and their names. In the center the medal states, "Pivotal in the struggle for equality," said Rosie Rios, who as treasurer of the United States oversees the U.S. Mint, which minted the medals.
Saturday's events will conclude with a concert by American Idol season four winner and Birmingham native Taylor Hicks and fireworks at Railroad Park in Birmingham.
Reuters contributed to this report.